- The progress some of my students have made with reading: I have one second grade student in particular who speaks English as a second language. All last year I encouraged her to read mostly in Spanish so as to build her foundational skills for decoding and comprehending texts. However, for whatever reason, she struggled to decode words in both languages, sounding out individual sounds and not blending them together. At the beginning of this year, she was about a year behind in her English reading, and behind in Spanish reading as well. However, through tutoring, one-on-one time during silent reading, book club, and her own determination at home, she has advanced about a year in reading over the past four months, in both languages. She is even starting to read for fun!
- The progress some of my students have made emotionally: I had one first grader in particular who started out the year yelling, running, disrupting and defying every direction he was given in the room. He refused to come to lessons. He refused to do work. If he wasn’t slamming doors or ringing the chime unnecessarily, he spent his first days cutting up bananas and other fruit for smoothies because that was all that he was willing to do. He still is not an easy child to guide, but this week he has: volunteered to stay in at recess and clean the our pet betta fish’s bowl, showed another first grader a new math lesson, designed his own experiment and recorded results, made an abstract painting using watercolors, and responsibly run around on the playground for ten minutes each day (without supervision) and come back. Not every moment with him is peaceful, but more and more of them are becoming so, and, most importantly, he feels proud of himself for doing so well.
- How much pride my students take in working hard and doing challenging work: If I could sum up what I say to my students over and over throughout the day, it would be ” Do challenging work and help others do challenging work.” At the beginning of the year, it was like pulling teeth to get many of my students to do what they should have been doing. They all wanted to chat with each other or do arts and crafts or do works that were way too easy or eat snack for long amounts of time. I had to say no, set limits, take away certain freedoms, and redirect what they were doing a lot. It wasn’t very pretty or very fun. However, we’ve finally gotten to a point as a class where I’ve almost worked myself out of a job. I looked around the room this morning, and looked at my lesson plan, and realized I didn’t really know what to do because all of my students were doing what they suppose to be doing. They were all doing challenging work and helping one another. I was able to sit down with one of my second grade students who just started showing an interest in division this week and give him a rather long division lesson, that he loved and really understood (which, was amazing given that he came in this year at a beginning of first grade math level). My students have started saying that they want to works because they are challenging or because they want to master them (and that they hate doing other works because they are too easy). They also love to count the number of works they have done each day, and take pride when they’ve completed a high number.
- How much my students respect the community and each other: I would say the worst teaching moment this year (other than the one where I cried the week after Halloween because I was feeling so sick and no one was cleaning and it was time to go home and everything just felt really overwhelming) was when it took my students half an hour to settle down in circle. It was perhaps the second or third week of school, after recess, on a Friday, during the last hour of the day, and after telling my students over and over to be quiet, I decided to take out a book and wait it out. I thought it would maybe take five minutes max for my students to realize I was waiting and quiet each other down, but sadly it took thirty. Looking back, I definitely could have done more to get them to settle down (sung a song, clapped a rhythm, etc.), but I was also curious to see who the leaders were in my room at that point. No one really was. However, like with #3, through a lot of reminding students to be quiet in circle, encouraging them to help others be quiet, reminding them to respect the speaker and look at them with their eyes, we’ve finally gotten to the point where the students are able to settle themselves down on their own (mostly). I switched over to having second and third graders sign up to lead community circle a few weeks ago, and it’s been amazing to watch as people sit down in the circle on their own on some days, listen to the student who is speaking, and remind each other to be paying attention. It doesn’t always happen 100% of the time, and have had moments where I’ve had to intervene, but we’ve had a couple of circles that have been completely self-run by the students and, once more, I feel like I’ve worked myself out of a job.
- The way my students care for one another and the world: Empathy is no easy skill to cultivate, especially when I often find myself not being full of it. There are moments when I just don’t really want to empathize with a student who is loudly sobbing because he accidentally misplaced his water bottle for the fifth time that week (and he needs it right now!) or when I don’t want to help a student who was leaning back in his chair (despite warnings) and fell down feel better or when a student who constantly makes annoying noises gets frustrated at any other student for doing so. Empathy is so hard. Helping others is hard. Caring about the world when things are constantly going wrong is hard. However, despite my own cynicism and apathy at certain moments of the day, I see my students growing. This week, a new student joined our room, and I’ve taught her all of three, maybe four, lessons. However, she has gotten about ten works done each day, and learned how to use probably about twenty of the materials in the room because I have had so many students who have been willing to help her and teach her at every moment of the day. It has been beautiful to watch. Last week, during Problem Solving Circle, my students also voted to have a discussion about guns that went on for thirty minutes because they felt really passionate about making sure kids their age weren’t shooting pretend guns at each other, given all of the violence in the world. They also wanted to figure out exactly what guns are for (hunting, shooting ranges, etc.) and what they are not for (hurting or killing one another). They even brought up on their own how harmful playing violent videos games is in terms of making violent behavior seem normal or more okay in real life. They have also really started empathizing with Muslims in the U.S. and are disturbed by how the media and certain Americans keep stereotyping them as bad. Empathy is probably most visibly seen with the pets we have in our room (a guinea pig and a betta fish) who I rarely have to take care of myself because my students are so on top of making sure they have food, water, and clean spaces to live in. They already even have homes for the holidays.
I am waiting for my dream job right now. For a reply back to an email in particular. I am waiting to know the time when I’ll be interviewed for the final round of a job that I want so badly.
And the thing is: I had no clue, none, until now that I could want this job so badly.
See the funny thing is, we don’t realize we’re changing until we’ve changed.
Four years ago, I came into college wanting to be a lawyer. I had just gotten done working for a political campaign and I thought that it was my calling, my passion in life to learn law, to become a politician, to show men that women can just as well run the world, and to bring about numerous pragmatic political reforms. I remember raising my hand during orientation week at the pre-law event, asking the advisor what kind of law schools most Swatties got into, and how many went onto Ivies. I dreamed of going to Harvard or Stanford. Of being at the forefront of Minnesota politics. The next Amy Klobuchar perhaps. Or even greater.
But then I took Intro to Education on a whim, after talking to my boyfriend at the time on the phone about what my last class should be. I had a poli sci class, a stats class for the future research I would be doing, a French class, what more should I take? Intro to Education would maybe be a good extension of my interest in politics. It’d probably be useful to know a thing or two about ed in order to be a good political leader.
And then, without even knowing it, everything shifted. I walked into my first ed observation, an ESL class full of first graders at a school in a nearby city that I would come to spend countless hours in. I knelt down next to my first child to help him sound out a word. I answered the first strange, forthright question from a kid that made me smile. I noticed how, despite all of the larger systemic problems with the educational system, small worlds could be created inside classrooms that felt peaceful, safe, and warm. I left that class thinking not that I would become a career teacher, but that I wanted to create more safe, warm spaces like the one I had observed. I wanted to created more welcoming atmospheres for young minds. I thought about education policy and that maybe my focus should shift from politics in general to the politics of education. Maybe I could be on a school board, and one of the few female superintendents.
But first, I would teach. Cause there is nothing more frustrating in the education world than the number of people making education policy decisions who have never taught a day in their lives.
So I planned out my future on some sticky notes. Wrote out all of the classes I would need to take for teaching certification over the next three years and a half years, posted them on bookshelf, called my mom up, told her my plans. And somehow, the course of my life changed.
Yet, we’re always changing and we’re always never who we quite thought we would be, for better or for worse. I took more education courses, spend more time in classrooms, started an afterschool program, and began to wonder what life was like before I spent time with kids everyday. Wondered what life was like not planning lessons in my head on the fly or shopping for various supplies. Wondered what life was like not reading education books for fun or griping about the latest reform measures.
I don’t think I would have ever majored in education had the department at my school not been so progressive and focused on education as a means of achieving social justice. If I had gone to any public university, I probably would have been doing far different things than attending elementary education classes. I might have been majoring in environmental science or history or Arabic or still be pre-law. It’s funny how the places we’re in shape us in ways that other places wouldn’t. We’re all a compilation of our experiences and perceptions of those experiences, expected or unexpected.
I would never, in a million years, have imagined that the job I want so badly right now would be my dream job upon graduating college. Or, for that matter, that I would ever hold the ideologies and viewpoints that I hold right now. I think it’s interesting that we’re all in a constant process of development, but we never really know who we are developing into.
I could say that God guides every step of our way or that there is some level of pre-destination to our life paths, but I don’t really think that’s true. I think rather we’ve been given the free will and circumstances to be molded and remolded, constructed and reconstructed, in ways seen and unseen.
I have no clue what my dream job will be next year. Or even a week from today. Or if this idea of a “dream job” will be something I learn to let go of, as no job is really ideal or a perfect fit.
I love teaching now, but who knows if I’ll love it five years from now.
We’ll see what happens.
Learning to let it be.
If anyone wants to check out my student teaching portfolio from this past semester, you can find it here:
I highly recommend checking out the “I wonder” letters my students wrote, which can be found under the “Student Work” page.
I thought I would share with you all the final reflection I wrote for student teaching this semester. I think it sums up this past year fairly well (having spent all of 2013 assistant/student teaching) and also where I think my future is headed. As much as I struggle with the theoretical, ivory tower nature of academia, I’m thinking more and more of getting a PhD or Doctorate in Education, while still having my grounding as an elementary teacher. This post also ties in well with what I wrote here, back in April. This essay is part of a whole portfolio I created on wordpress for my student teaching, and once I anonymize it more, I think I’m going to make it public and link it here, if you all want to check it out.
Reflective Essay: On Theory and Practice
I think one of the biggest dilemmas I face in becoming a teacher and trying to become a teacher is the one of praxis, of trying to unite theory and practice in a way that is beneficial to students and myself as a teacher. As someone who has spent the past year of college working on her practice as an educator, assistant teaching at the Cloud Forest School (CEC) in Monteverde, Costa Rica, and student teaching at the Philadelphia Montessori Charter School (PMCS) in Philadelphia, PA, and the two and a half years beforehand studying educational theory, I think I’ve found at a relatively young age how little of practice in schools is informed by theory and how little of theory in higher education institutions is fully cognizant of the burdens of practice.
Prior to this year of practice, I thought I had my praxis relatively figured out. I had developed a fairly articulate theory of instruction while taking Education Psychology, one that reflected the work of Eccles et al. (1993) and the need to create an environment that is developmentally appropriate, engaging, and challenging to students. I incorporated the work of Nolen (2007) to create a theory of practice that focused strongly on the needs and benefits of writing in an elementary classroom. I built on the research of Yamuchi et al. (2005) and the need for creating culturally-relevant projects in classrooms that involve the community and its needs. I looked at Mark Springer’s (2006) work in Soundings and strived to create a pedagogy that would allow students to have a voice and a say in their own learning. I especially thought about Dweck (2000) and the need to constantly reinforce that intelligence is mastery, not performance-based, something that I myself have often struggled to believe.
Moreover, I took Urban Education the same time I took Education Psychology and I incorporated many of the readings and theories from that class into my theory of instruction, since my main aim since my freshman fall has been to teach in an urban setting. Particulary, I looked at Martin Haberman’s (1994) article “The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching” and tried to make sure my practices were as reflective of good teaching as possible, and not just focused on having students understand the basics. I thought about discipline quite a bit and the fact that urban schools often focus on discipline first, content second (Noguera, 2003). While not explicit in the paper I wrote at the time, I made the connection between Yamuchi et al. and Moll et al. (2005) and the need to not only work within students’ communities, but also build on the existing knowledge that stems from their community. It was particulary this semester, my fall sophomore year, where I saw all of these various theories I had read about fitting neatly together in my head to create a pedagogy that, I thought at least, would work well for students.
Other classes contributed as well to my thinking about how I would go into this year of practice. I consistently thought about my reading from Special Education in terms of disability being a social construction. I thought about how to make sure I saw all of my students, regardless of their learning challenges, as smart, gifted, and abled individuals. I thought about how I would best give extra help to certain students without making them feel alienated or different than the other students in the room. I thought as well about the readings and theories from Teaching Diverse Young Learners and my desire to create read aloud spaces where students could fully express themselves, and math lessons that would be conceptually, rather than procedurally, based.
Add all of this processing and thinking about theory taught at Swarthmore to the fact that I am also interested in Montessori education. Having read Angeline Stoll Lillard’s (2008) book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius winter my sophomore year and externed in a Montessori classroom that January, I fell in love with the order and structure of Montessori classrooms and the way that many of the practices within them are supported by the same educational theories and findings that I had just read about in Education Psychology. I saw my own professor’s name cited numerous times as being support for the environment of interest and engagement that a Montessori curriculum can create. Despite that it is a hundred year old pedagogy that has changed little over the course of the past century, and despite the fact that it is often considered a “fringe” or “alternative” form of teaching in the United States, and that I had never read about it in any Swarthmore classes, I really loved Montessori education. I loved the style of teaching and interacting with students, and the idea of giving students choice and independence over their learning in a controlled, thoughtful environment. I also loved the emphasis on peace education and the global perspective that Montessori took. There is something awe-inspiring about a pedagogy that is not just native to one country, but found all throughout the world, in more or less the same form. It shows that many aspects of learning and thinking truly are universal and gives children around the world a shared experience, despite the vast distances and differences in culture. The Great Lessons that Montessori created also struck me. The idea that students can learn about the Big Bang as early as six years old and have that as a reference point for all the rest of their learning was something I had never encountered before. It showed me that children can learn more than we think they can, and about more complex material than we think we can, so long as we tailor it to their developmental level and make it more impressionistic than detailed and exact.
Given the six education courses I took prior to this calendar year and my own reading on Montessori education, I came into both of my classroom settings well grounded in theory. However, what I soon found, and I knew this somewhat before coming in, especially from my own school experiences, is that the majority of practice in schools is not really tied back to theory. There is a lack of discussion about theory in actual schools that I found to be just as frustrating as the lack of discussion about practice in many of my Swarthmore classes. I felt a strong disconnect between all that I had learned the two and a half years prior and the way that schools are actually run. Neither of the schools I taught in were “bad” per se. Neither of them were trying to do wrong by children. Both wanted their students to grow up to succeed and do well in life.
However, neither institution had an ongoing discourse about praxis, about how to best make various educational theories and practices fit well together. Especially in my time at PMCS, I found many curricular choices being made because they seemed to be the lastest and greatest development, or because they supported students’ performance on standardized testing. From AIMSWeb® testing to StudyIsland® Benchmarks to Fundations® (Wilson Phonics), I found myself in a sea of trademarked terms and practices that are meant to prepare students for the PSSAs. My experience was not as test-driven or focused or corporate as it might have been at other urban charter schools. Afterall, PMCS is Montessori-based, and there was a fair amount of time in the day spent using materials like the Stamp Game, Bead Chains, and Three Part Cards. However, I did not see or experience any ongoing discussions at the school about how to add more community-based or culturally-relevant forms of learning, despite the support of research for those forms of learning, or how to make sure that students have a mastery rather than performance-based form of intelligence. I did not find this either at the CEC. I found there to be numerous conversations about rules at recess, rules in the lunchroom, how to handle particular students, how to make sure students’ IEPs were up to code, etc. I found policies and procedures to be taking precidence over theories and research-based pedagogy.
In my own teaching, I tried my best to incorporate the two. I taught a unit where my students wrote letters to experts about questions they wondered about, similar to what students do in the Soundings classroom. Many of them have received replies back. I created a persuasive writing unit and had conversations with my students about the community they live in. We talked about both the beauty and ugliness within it and how to persuade others to make the ugliness more beautiful. We talked about people experiencing homelessness and the need to treat all people with respect because that is part of the process of creating peace. I consistently reminded my students that I wanted them to work hard because I wanted them to get smarter, and that the brain is like a muscle that needs to be exercised in order to become stronger. I taught a few of Montessori’s lessons, about the formation of galaxies, the fundamental needs of humans, and foundations of geometry (points, lines, and rays). I tried my best to have read alouds be a time when students could share their thoughts, and where I would listen to everything they had to say. I tried my best to create math lessons that were conceptually, rather than procedurally based, that used manipulatives to show why something is the way it is. Most of all, I tried to give my students the opportunity to write as much as possible and share what they wrote. In Costa Rica, I had my students write and share poetry (the first poems they had ever written!). In Philadelphia, I gave my students’ journal prompt after journal prompt, including one after they had been too noisy during their worktime and I made them sit down and write, that I then gave them the opportunity to write about, share, and discuss. I tried to amplify my students’ voices as much as I could, and make it so it wasn’t just my own that was being heard, a concept that stems all the way back to my reading of Dewey in Intro to Education.
I am realizing, though, that my role in the education system is small and that the forces dividing theory and practice are stronger than I’ll ever be able to tackle. At least at the moment, education policy is and will continue to be influenced by raw test scores and this idea that there’s an “achievement gap.” Education will keep being influenced by money and funding, and the practices that get you those, rather than by solid educational theory. Moreover, teachers will keep being controlled and regulated, and not seen as real professionals, so long as the profession is dominated by women, and sexism exists. There are forces beyond measure that keep practice from truly reflecting good theory. However, this does not mean I do not want to be a teacher anymore. Rather it makes me want to be a teacher even more. I want to bridge the gap between theory and practice in my work. I want to be a voice in faculty meetings that asks why we are doing things a certain way and wonders how new practices best fit with current research. I want to speak up for teachers, and help create spaces where other teachers can speak up for themselves in terms of education policy. Just as importantly, I want to bring more practice into theory. I want to give teachers more of a say and voice in what is published in prominent education journals. I want to conduct my own research rather than just being the subject of research. I want to show just how hard teaching is and how often times what is theorized is incredibly hard to put into practice. Essentially, I want to keep one foot grounded in academia and one foot grounded in the real world, so that hopefully the dilemma between theory and practice becomes just a little bit less profound.
Dweck, C.S. (2000). Self-Theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development (pp. 1-28). Philadelphia, PA: Taylor & Francis.
Eccles, et al. (1993). Development during adolescence: The impact of stage-environment fit on young adolescents’ experience in schools and in families. American Psychologist, 48(2), 90-101.
Haberman, M. (1994). The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching, In J. Kretovics (Ed.), Transforming Urban Education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Pp. 305-314.
Lillard, A. S. (2008). Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius: The Science Behind the Genius. Oxford University Press.
Moll, L., Amanti, C., Neff, D., and González, N (2005). Funds of Knowledge for Teaching: Using Qualitative Approach to Connect Homes and Classrooms. In N. González, L. C. Moll, and C. Amanti (Eds.), Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Pp. 71-87.
Noguera, P. (2003). City Schools and the American Dream. New York: Teachers College Press. Chapter 3 & 4.
Nolen, S. B. (2007). The role of literate communities in the development of children’s interest in writing. In S. Hidi and P. Boscolo (Eds.), Writing and motivation (pp. -255). New York: Elsevier.
Springer, M. (2006). Soundings. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.
Yamuchi, L. A., Wyatt, T. T. R., & Carroll, J. H. (2005). Enacting the five standards for effective pedagogy in a culturally relevant high school program. In A. E. Maynard and M. I. Martini (Eds.), Learning in cultural contexts: Family, peers, and school (pp. 227-245). New York, NY: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
I have been doing A LOT of processing lately. This week marks my last week student teaching and, to sum it up quickly, it’s been rough. Don’t get me wrong, the school where I am at has a lot of good things going for it and I would never speak against it. However, just like any urban charter school (or quite frankly, any urban school), it is experiencing a lot of challenges, from little funding to high staff and student turnover to trying to be a Montessori school in a test-driven political climate where clearly no one in power ever went to Montessori school. It has been really really hard to work in a setting where I have no clue what happens in my students’ lives between the hours of 3:30pm and 8:30am and where there isn’t the money or resources for my students to receive all the support that they need or the education they deserve.
And to be honest, this semester has left me feeling fed up. Not with my students, who are so bright and beautiful and young, or the teachers who try their hardest to teach them, or their parents/family members who often times work two jobs, or with the administrators who do their best to keep the school afloat. This semester has left me fed up with other groups: with academics (for their myriad theories and scarcity of actions), with politicians (for caring about themselves more than their constituents), and, most of all, with one group in particular (the group I happened to have grown up with and still live within) people in white (middle class) suburbia.
Because you know what, friends in white suburbia?
The United States is still segregated.
And why should that matter?
Because you are helping to make it so.
Don’t get me wrong, I full-on grew up in white suburbia. The suburb I lived in growing up was something along the lines of 97% white, and pretty well off as well, with the median household income being $97,725. I went to a church that had about 1500 people worshipping a week, and, I kid you not, all but a handful of families I can think of were white. As someone currently living in an even more affluent, though slightly less white, suburb, I know what it is like to not live in the city. And I get just how white and middle class suburbia can be. But you know what I am fed up with? The fact that all of us in white suburbia are perfectly okay with how white it is. Why is it that white, guys? Who is choosing to make it that white (or that middle class)? Did we really forget, that easily, that we were the ones who made it that way? We chose to move into the suburbs. We chose to stay there. We chose to not have public housing built there. And we chose to take all of our lovely middle and upper middle class resources with us, and leave the schools in the city with nothing. (Whoever decided to have schools receive funding from property taxes was clearly not a proponent of social equality.)
I think what has made me so frustrated this semester, commuting back and forth between an urban school and my suburban college town, and what makes me so frustrated with all these dialogues regarding the achievement gap and urban ed reform is that, in my mind, the solution is so simple. It’s not school choice or charter schools or longer school days or “better” (less-prepared) teachers or more standardized testing. All it is is this:
Going back in time, stopping our white flight, and desegregating urban and suburban schools.
I’m certainly not the first to say this, and decidedly not the last. And I will keep saying it until the voice for it becomes stronger. If we, in white suburbia, really think schools in the inner-city should be better (maybe we don’t, but if we do), then we should send our white children, and not just checks or box tops, to them. We should bus our kids into the city, just like black kids, and only black kids, were forced to take the bus to far off schools in order to desegregate. Many people I’ve met and know in white suburbia have the idea that the U.S. is a post-racial society and they don’t think racism still exists. After all, U.S. law doesn’t “allow” for it, and look who’s President? A black guy. If that is so, and if we are a post-racial society, then we in white suburbia should have no problem sending our kids to schools that aren’t primarily white, and, in fact, might be primarily black or Hispanic. If we have no problem with people from different social classes, and if we truly appreciate the work Wal-mart cashiers or nursing home aides do (often times taking care of our own relatives), then we should have no problem sending our kids to the same schools as their kids. If we truly care about making urban education reform happen, then we should be okay with making it happen at the cost of our own children. We should be sticking our kids in the same schools that urban kids are being stuck in, because, after all, those are apparently good schools, or at least good enough for the kids in the city. To put it point blank: if we think those schools are good enough for those kids, then they should be good enough for ours. No questions asked.
And if you think these ideas are crazy, then you should check your privilege and post-racial society thinking at the door and realize that the schools we are sending urban kids to are not good enough. If they are not good enough for your middle class white kids, then they are not good enough. Don’t act as if more charter schools, longer school days, more testing, and less-prepared teachers are the solution. If you wouldn’t send your white child to a school that has ten hour school days, or teachers with only six weeks of training, or not enough money to pay for a decent playground, then your idea for reform is not the solution. Send your children to these schools. Have them be in the same classes as kids who haven’t had the same privileges they’ve had. Share your resources. See if there is enough to go around. And if there isn’t, figure it out so that it’s not just your own children getting everything, and children with much less still getting much less.
Don’t just accept white suburbia as the end all, be all for how society should look, and don’t expect others to make the first moves. We’re going to have to be the first ones to do it. We’re the the ones with privilege. We’re the ones with choice. We’re the ones who left.
And to my Christian friends in the suburbs who want to send their children to a Christian school, there are lots of urban Christian schools out there. Don’t let your faith stop you (especially, when, Lord knows, it should be encouraging you even more to create systems that are more favorable towards the poor).
Thoughts? Think this is the best/worst idea in the world? Post your reactions below! For reals, do it! I love dialogue.
I feel like a lot of people in my life know why I want to be a teacher (education can be a means of empowerment, I love kids, love learning, and love helping kids to develop and grow intellectually, emotionally, and socially), but less people know why exactly I want to teach Montessori. During the course of my time student teaching at a public Montessori charter school, people have said things to me like:
“Wait, there’s more than one Montessori school? I thought Montessori was just the name of your school.”
“You seem to have taught a lot of writing. Does Montessori have a strong focus on writing?”
“Do your kids get to do whatever they want?”
“How do you teach first through third graders? How can you differentiate all of your lessons?”
“Do you want to teach at a Montessori school?”
“Is your school religious?”
“I thought Montessori schools were just for pre-school and kindergarteners.”
And most often:
“Wait, Montessori? What is that?”
I’ve decided to write a (not so) quick and dirty post here about what Montessori education here is, and why I want to be a Montessori educator, just so I can try to put a lot of these questions to rest. It is an interesting and unique model of education that is vastly different than more traditional methods of education in many respects. I’ve really appreciated all of the questions people have asked my regarding it because, if anything, it has gotten me to think critically about why I do what I do and if this really is the approach for me.
To begin with, let me have you watch this video:
I promise I’m not trying to get you to donate money to a documentary (though feel free to!). I just think this video strikes a good balance between explaining the ideals/background/overall spirit of Montessori education, and showing what it actually looks like in a classroom (which just so happens to be in my home state). Another good video to watch, and which has the most views on Youtube, is Montessori Madness. I don’t like it quite as much because it doesn’t show actual materials/classrooms, but it does do a good job explaining the pedagogical differences between Montessori and conventional schools.
While I don’t know everything about Montessori education, because I haven’t been trained, I would describe it best as a progressive approach to education that focuses on the whole development of each individual child, rather than on the overall academic development of a group of children. Rather than focusing on meeting a set of grade level curriculum standards for a group of same age children, Montessori education focuses on meeting a group of mixed age children where they are, socially, emotionally, and intellectually. Rather than placing children into groups and differentiating from there, it individualizes from the get go. Each child is given the materials and problems to use that best meet his or her developmental levels. Some children are given materials that help them do three digit addition, others are given materials that help them do two digit multiplication. Oftentimes, those children can be the same age. Moreover, the materials children use are versatile. Students start working with bead chains as early as three years old and continue to use them until they are nine, going from counting to addition to multiplication to squaring and cubing. The materials in Montessori classrooms are standardized and pretty much the same as they were when Maria Montessori developed them. The curriculum is highly based on the use of these, especially in the primary and lower elementary classrooms, because children still think very concretely and kinesthetically. One of the best parts of this standardization, is that a child can move from a Montessori school in Minnesota to a Montessori school in Bhutan (they truly do exist worldwide!) and pick up on his learning exactly where he left off.
Another aspect of Montessori that makes it truly unique is the structure of the school day. The way that the school day looks for my children personally is that we have breakfast and a math or reading packet first thing in the morning, followed by a community meeting. After that, my students have two hours of solid worktime. During this time, my cooperating teacher and I teach small group and individual language, math, and science lessons. When students aren’t in lessons with teachers, they are working with the various materials in the classroom, and filling out workplans, which list the materials and activities they can do. Each day, students are expected to complete one math and language activity. Overall, they are expected to complete four to five activities in a morning. Activities and materials include: three part cards (which have information about everything from plants to seasons to art to ecosystems to geometry terms), the Stamp Game, journal writing, puzzle maps (in which children carefully trace each country onto paper, fitting them together), sight word Bingo, math workbooks (both are not really “Montessori”), spelling booklets, and geometrical insets. For the most part, the students can choose which materials they would like to work with on a given morning and when they would like to work on them. Giving children this level of choice and independence is something that is rarely seen in most traditional schools. In the afternoon, after silent reading time, we usually do a whole group activity, either science, writing, music/culture, or any other activity that we think all of the children will benefit from. There is a lot of flexibility in terms of what this time looks and what subject or topic it focuses on. Last week, we made clocks as a class and learned some songs in Spanish. Other weeks, we have made models of the Earth’s layers using clay and written autobiographical timelines. The way the afternoon, and the overall school day, are structured allows many interdisciplinary approaches to be used to teach topics.
Other reasons I love Montessori education, which I won’t extend upon as much but quickly summarize here, are:
- Its focus on peace education and global citizenship. As said in the first video, Montessori schools can be seen all throughout the world, and because of this, Montessori pedagogy has a strong focus on cooperation and interdependence. Montessori education isn’t tied to one particular country’s ideologies or ideals. No country is better than another country.
- The mixed age classrooms. There is something cool about seeing a third grader teaching a group of first graders how to use a certain material, or seeing a second grader and third grader, who are learning the same topic mathematically, work together. It is also really cool to see the friendships that develop across grade level, to see a first grade boy and a third grade girl always sit together during writing time. It mimics real life more, where work environments aren’t composed of people who are the same age, but different ages, and where mentorship is constantly going on.
- The time and flexibility it gives to explore and work. This is similar to what I said above about the structure of the workday being unique, but something that I would like to point out explicitly. In many traditional schools, if a student is not done with a certain task in fifteen minutes, he’s not going to finish it. Or if the bell rings, it’s time to move on to the next task, whether or not the students are ready. Students are expected to do only a certain amount of work and nothing more. In Montessori classrooms, that is not always the case. Just last week, I gave a geometry lesson to the first graders about lines, rays, line segments, and points. After the lesson, I gave them the assignment to work with a partner to make a list of ten line segments around the room in their journals. I sent them off to work and twenty minutes later, four of them came up to me (two separate sets of partners), showing me the lists of thirty line segments they had found throughout the room. I had given them an assignment that apparently had piqued their curiosity and they were able to spend as much time as they liked doing it.
- Its comprehensive developmentally-appropriate approach. As mentioned in the video, Maria Montessori created an education plan that extends from birth to age twenty-four, which is when the brain more or less reaches full maturity. She divided those twenty-four years into four stages, and each of those stages into two sub-stages. Each stage takes into account fully what a child, adolescent, or young adult is able to do and not do developmentally. They also take into account the regressions that people naturally make as they develop, for example how adolescents (ages 12-18) are often much like infants and toddlers (ages 0-6) in terms of egoism and emotional fragility. Montessori education treats each of these changes and occurrences as natural, and not things to be worried or concerned about.
- It’s stability. There are A LOT of trends that come and go in education, and that aren’t always scientifically proven to work. The Montessori method has been around for over one hundred years now, and has been proven in study after study to produce students who are intellectually curious, creative, and independent. One of the best books to read about why Montessori education works from a more academic, psychological approach is Angeline Lillard’s book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius. Study after study that has come out in the field of educational psychology over the last twenty years (including those that my own educational psychology professor has done) support schools taking on approaches similar to those already existing in Montessori education. Moreover, Montessori is fundamentally different from many educational approaches because many educational approaches are created, implemented and then scientifically tested. Science plays little role in their actual creation. Montessori, on the other hand, developed her approaches using the scientific method. She observed a child’s behavior, created a material that he could use, noticed his behavior with the material, changed the material as needed, and so on until she had made a material that truly worked for the child as she intended it. She did not come in with any pre-conceived notions of what her pedagogy should look like, but developed it from the ground up through observation and testing. She also discovered many of the same things that Piaget discovered (the two were actually friends!), but of course she is cited less because she’s a woman. Sigh.
- The level and kind of content that is taught. Because the Montessori method is so tactilely and concretely based, children are able to learn many complex concepts at an early age through the use of materials and visuals that they would not be able to learn at such a young age if the lessons were taught more abstractly. Children learn about such scientific concepts as the Big Bang and the creation of the world, as well as stellar nucleosynethesis (the creation of all types of matter through the birth and death of stars), and the formation of galaxies through the use of visual demonstration and various materials. They learn about how numbers have developed over time, where the concept of zero came from, how languages have developed, and how humans formed. History and science are closely linked together, and there is a strong focus on looking at the development of various concepts and beings over time. Rather than having a super narrow and limited understanding of the world, students are given broad, sweeping, impressionistic understandings that develop and become more detailed over time.
- It’s based on formative, rather than summative assessments. Students’ development and understandings are constantly assessed and observed as they work with materials, rather than when they take summative tests. In fact, Montessori schools are often known in the wider culture as being places where no tests or homework are given. While my school does give homework, and my students take many assessments to get ready for the PSSAs, these two ideas are generally true, especially at private Montessori schools. Maria Montessori believed that assessment should be authentic and happen through teacher observation and the use of self-correcting materials. She also believed that children should not be given homework because they need time to rest, especially after a hard day of work at school. Moreover, in a Montessori home environment, students are expected to help clean, prepare dinner, and do other household tasks from a young age. These sorts of tasks are the work of the home, and not worksheets or textbook readings.
While I don’t think Montessori is the only way to educate a child, I do wish more people knew about it. I think there are many areas of education where the Montessori model could be incorporated or applied more. While there are a few Montessori-based special education schools in the U.S., many of which have produced really positive results, I think many of the Montessori materials would be wonderful to incorporate in any special education classroom because they are so tactile and allow for students to use multiple modalities. Moreover, they are oftentimes self-correcting and control for error. I personally want to work towards having more urban Montessori schools. It’s frustrating to me that a method that was originally developed for impoverished kids in Rome has been co-opted, at least in the U.S., to be mostly for children in white affluent suburbs. While I don’t necessarily think it’s “wrong” for children in these areas to be going to Montessori schools, I do want Montessori education to become something that is accessible to everyone, and especially to children who live where “drill and kill” is the normal method of instruction. Whether this means working in Philadelphia or Chicago or St. Paul or starting my own Montessori school one day, I don’t know. But it is decidedly something I feel passionate about and want to see happen in my lifetime.
So right now, when the going gets tough, and my cooperating teacher and I are holding class in the school’s cafeteria for the next one to three weeks as our classroom gets cleaned up from a sewage leak, I will keep reminding myself that what I am working towards is something that is really empowering and needed. Many people in my life may not understand it, but it’s what I care about, and perhaps even what God is calling me to do.
Have any additional questions about Montessori education? Or stories about being in a Montessori school yourself? Feel free to leave a comment below!
Tomorrow I start my third week of student teaching (fourth if you count in-service days). And I am so excited. We’ll be working on making personal timelines and writing autobiographies. Each classroom at my school is named after a famous peacemaker. Ours is the Frederick Douglass room, so we’ve been reading a lot about his life, and how he wrote an autobiography. The kids have been so fascinated by his life and I think they’re excited to write about their own, just like he did. They’ll also be learning the first of the Great Lessons that are part of the Montessori curriculum, about how the universe began, from a scientific perspective, and all of the different creation stories that people have used throughout time to explain why it began (because science can explain the how, but not the why). It’ll be cool to take such a global perspective on creationism when at least a third of our students are Muslim, one is Jewish, and the rest are more or less different varieties of Christian. We all bring similar, but unique perspectives to the table, and there are countless more out there that deserve to be acknowledged as well.
As wonderful as the curriculum, the teachers, and the kids in my classroom are, I can’t talk about student teaching without admitting how incredibly tough it is. My school, for good and for bad, is located in a decidedly urban area. There is a lot of beauty within the neighborhood. African corner stores, women in hijabs walking their toddlers across the street, men at the bus stop offering their seat on a bench to an elderly woman, people stopping to talk to one another, their reflections showing in store front windows, and kids walking together to and from school in their uniforms. The community carries strong ties, to both each other and the cultures they left behind.
But, as with any struggling urban neighborhood, there is also a lot of ugliness. From men in wheelchairs at far too young of an age to trash covering the sidewalks to the actual cracks in the sidewalk to no large grocery stores to high levels of crime and low levels of income. My kids carry both the beauty and ugliness of their various surrounding neighborhoods into the classroom and it shows. Already one of my youngest students has been called into the Department of Human Services because of a couple of really concerning incidents. A few other students have shown up to school incredibly tired, one falling asleep during class meeting because, she said, her baby sister’s crying was keeping her up at night. Every student receives a free breakfast in the morning, and many qualify for free or reduced lunch. Few brought all of the school supplies they were asked to bring for the first day to school (though all did show up in the correct uniform). I have no clue what happens in my students lives between when they leave school and when they return the next day. And obviously there is a wide variety in how their lives are led, just like in any context. But many of them do live in tough situations and it’s hard to think that we’re sending them back into them at the end of every school day.
And what’s even tougher to think about is my kids’ futures. How the lack of funding for our school and all of the surrounding ones automatically puts them behind their richer peers in the suburbs. How the way various social and political systems work makes going to prison far easier than going to college. How there is so much less stability, and thus less guaranteed for them, than there was for me in my own very white, very privileged life. As one prospective parent summed it up, she would, in an ideal world, like her third grade son to be able to become a doctor or lawyer, but with the way the streets are, she would at least like him to be able to read when he’s in prison. She would rather her son be a smart criminal than a dumb one. She knows the reality of our society’s systems.
With circumstances and systems like this, it’s hard to not lose hope. Why does it matter if my students are incredibly smart and learning so much right now if they’ll never be able to attend college? Why should we even have them write about their hopes and dreams if we know that there is so much in the way of their hopes and dreams becoming true? And how can we expect them to learn anything during the day when they are having to deal with so much at home?
But to lose hope is to admit defeat. It’s to say that the way our society is structured is how it always will be structured and it will never change. It’s to say that yeah, sure, Frederick Douglass was able to escape slavery and fight for equal rights in so many arenas, but he was one in a million, and nope, none of my kids will be able to do that. It’s to give up on my kids before they even give up on themselves.
So no matter how little funding is being given to public schools right now, no matter how unstable my kids lives are, no matter how little sleep or fruit or vegetables or books or whatever they need to grow and learn that they are being given, no matter how different their funds of knowledge are from what school and standardized testing expect of them, no matter how many barriers and pipelines that have been put in place to make going to prison easier than going to college, I am going to keep teaching. Keep helping decode words. Keep showing them countries and cities on the classroom globe. Keep answering questions. Keep giving encouraging words. Keep setting high expectations. And keep showing them that yes, they are smart, and yes, they can do so, so many things with their gifts and talents.
I refuse to give up hope. Because I refuse to let society and politics win.
It’s that time of year again.
Target and Wal-mart are stocking and restocking ever-dwindling supplies of pencils, pencil sharpeners, erasures, notebook paper, post-it notes, and way too many folders with Justin Bieber’s face on them.
Yesterday I stopped by that section, originally thinking I would just buy myself a planner to keep track of all of my random seminars, workshops, etc. this coming semester, but I ended up leaving with some kickass Dr. Suess pencils, erasures, Spanish-English dictionaries, and other supplies to send to my first-now-second graders and cooperating teacher in Costa Rica. I miss them all so much.
And with that, I begin a new teaching venture. Student teaching at the Philadelphia Montessori Charter School. And to be honest, I’m not really all that nervous. I’m just straight up excited. There is something so calming and restful about being in a Montessori classroom. The way all of the students are quietly working at their own pace. The way the teachers don’t raise their voices, but softly direct students back to their work. I’m really looking forward to being in such a balanced atmosphere, especially with the (good) stress that I know will come from being at Swarthmore and with other Swatties.
And since I haven’t written about it at all on here yet, I would just like to say that this summer has been absolutely wonderful. I’ve had the chance to live with my dad again, something I haven’t done for three years. We’ve had some really good meals and runs together, and I even got him to watch the Bachelorette finale for two whole minutes. Definitely something he has never done before. I’ve also gotten to spend more time with my high school friends than I have basically since graduation. And I love that while we have grown apart geographically, we have grown along the same paths metaphorically. We have all come to realize how privileged (and elitist to a certain degree) our backgrounds are, that no solution to a problem is perfect, and all we want to do is serve people as best we can. How Midwestern.
I also had the chance this summer to witness the marriage of two of my closest friends in South Dakota, to journey up to the Boundary Waters and become a true Minnesotan, and to spend lots and lots of time at my favorite coffee shop in the Twin Cities (love you, Nina’s!). I’ve seen my little nephew take his first guided steps and practice his phonemes. I celebrated my mom’s and sister-in-law’s birthdays. My dad ate his first Japanese food (aside from sushi) on Father’s Day. My sister and I have seen movies and drunk beer together and finally had sister-sister days (which is what we called them when we were little) that haven’t ended up with her telling me to do something, and me saying I don’t want to, crying, and running to my mom. +1 for growing up. Life here in MN isn’t half bad and I’m excited for all the good beginnings to come this semester.
Here’s to senior year.
1) Nicaragua was wonderful. I can’t believe how many things we did in three and a half days. We took a tour of Granada, during which we saw numerous neoclassical Catholic churches, went to Masaya and saw traditional dancing and part of the Passion, walked through and shopped in several different markets (some aimed at tourists, others more for locals), visited an afterschool program (where I met a super cool six year old), looked into a volcano crater and coughed from all of the sulfur, met an indigenous potter and watched him do his work (P.S. Suzanne, I have a mug for you and all of your tea/cake), danced until one of us got very drunk (Not me. I promise.), took part in a traditional procession for Palm Sunday, attended Mass, ate on the waterfront of Lake Nicaragua, and ate more ice cream than I’ve eaten in the past two months. Below are a few of the best shots I took. Sadly, my camera’s battery ran out on Friday, so I didn’t take any pictures Saturday or Sunday, but luckily my friends got plenty of shots. While I’m not a fan of going to a country and being super touristy all the time, it was good to be one for a few days.
2) Remember that time back in January of 2012 when I said I wanted to be Montessori teacher when I grew up? Well… guess where I’ll be student teaching next semester…
In a Montessori school. The Philadelphia Montessori Charter School to be exact, which means I’m not just getting Montessori teaching experience, but also urban teaching experience. Feeding two birds with one scone. Perfect. I’ll hopefully be in the 1st-3rd grade classroom, since this is the age I want to be Montessori certified in. Words can’t describe how happy I was when I saw the email from my education advisor with the news. This has been my first choice school for over a year now, and to finally know that I’ll actually get to be there for ten weeks next fall really is a dream come true. And it’s a perfect site for my thesis research. Make that three birds, one scone.
3) Speaking of my thesis… I received summer funding! Which means I can do a comprehensive lit review on my topic, begin to analyze all of my data from Costa Rica, and generally get a good start on it this summer so I won’t be so stressed out about it this coming fall, when I’ll be essentially working full time. The grant I received was the one I thought I had the best chance of receiving. It’s called the Joanna Rudge Long ’56 Award in Conflict Resolution and the official description is:
The Joanna Rudge Long’56 award is given to an undergraduate of Swarthmore College for a summer research project or summer internship “relating to the acquisition of skills in peaceful conflict resolution by elementary school age or younger children.”
Research projects may be designed and implemented by students or may be conducted in collaboration with faculty members of Swarthmore College or from other (academic or research) institutions.
Proposals may be for internships in established agencies or organizations that have programs, or are in the process of forming programs, specifically relating to the acquisition of skills in peaceful conflict resolution by elementary school age or younger children.
AKA It’s a grant specifically designed for researching little people and peace. I love my college.