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Friday, December 31, 2010

To CPS, We Need More Montessori Schools

1. More than one hundred years ago a young doctor, Maria Montessori, created the model for cooperative education. It begins by showing three-year-old children how to care for themselves, allowing them to explore their surroundings, and providing fascinating manipulative materials for mathematics, language, geography and the sciences. Children do receive brief lessons both individually and in small groups, but the majority of their time is spent exploring materials of their own choosing and learning from them what they can. These children who spend three years, until they are six, in these mixed age classrooms are engaged in their own education for life.

2. We have had enough competitive learning. Enough grades, class ranking and achievement test score comparisons. We get it! Children are competitive and it's easier to control their learning behavior this way. Enough already! We want our children to learn to cooperate, to share knowledge and discoveries.

3.We are tired of hearing you blame the principals or the teachers or the limited facilities or the lack of finances or even the parents for the traditional system that fails too many children in one way or another. We are tired of the blame game. Our traditional system is fundamentally flawed. The solution lies in understanding why it does not work.

4. Yes, the present system does work for some children: the ones who find a personal connection to what is being taught. For those who are disconnected, your only solution seems to be a teacher with the ability to fire up the students' minds. Teachers with this ability are wonderful like rock stars. But training super teachers is not the answer. The continued success of each student must lie within the student himself. What is being learned must have some personal meaning .

5. Children who spend three years, from age three to six, in a Montessori classroom find that personal connection and meaning in what they are learning even as they grow older.

6. We need more Montessori public schools. We need more well trained Montessori teachers. We need our state and local colleges to offer masters degrees in Montessori education. We need this now.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Empowerment and Chicago's Top Schools

Here in the United States and probably in most of the Western world, we consider basic teaching adequate when a child can read well enough to read a book, can write well enough to express himself in a letter or an essay, and can calculate well enough to balance a checkbook. Is teaching these things educational empowerment? Empowerment can mean literacy. But there is some confusion here because Webster's dictionary defines literacy as “being literate” and the first meaning of literate as an adjective is “an educated person” but the second is “being able to read and write.” To empower is also broadly vague, meaning both “to enable” and “to promote the self-actualization of..." So when we speak of empowering students, are we speaking of the minimum or the maximum? Or something entirely different?

Traditionally we judge the empowerment of children through grades awarded and successful testing. I am looking at the Chicago Tribune (Friday, October 29, 2010, Section 1, p.5) at an article beginning on the front page, “Region's Top 50 Schools.” In this article Chicago regional public schools have been rated by the percentage of students who met or exceeded state standards on Illinois state tests. Of these there were two Chicago elementary schools having all classes from third grade (the youngest tested) through eighth grade receiving scores of 100 percent: Lenart Elementary Regional Gifted Center and Keller Elementary Gifted Magnet School. The top three high schools were also in Chicago: Northside College Preparatory High School (98.7%), Payton College Preparatory High School (97.3%), and Whitney Young Magnet High School (93.8%). Quite impressive!

Both my parents were public school teachers and I have always been proud of them. But now they are gone, and I am sixty-seven with two grown children, a daughter who is forty-one and a son who is twenty-five. They each received a Montessori education. But I came through traditional public schools, sitting at desks for hours at a time where I was expected to assimilate lessons and absorb textbooks, just as most children still do today fifty years later.

And teachers today still delude themselves with the idea that grades help children learn, rather than understanding that the real purpose of grades is to control children through competition so that they will study even if they have no interest in the subject. And this may work even with the children who do see through the ruse but have the patience to study anyway, and it also works for children who will compete without any other reason but merely for the sake of the competition. The children who are dropping out of school are the ones who have no investment in academics and have seen through the system. In leaving they have empowered themselves in a different way and they know it. But they leave for an uneven existence that, at least in my Humboldt Park Chicago neighborhood, leaves them surviving too often on the wrong side of the law and rotating in and out of jail.

Real empowerment comes from being interested and invested in what you are studying. Incredibly effective teachers, some with quite a flair for the dramatic, can do this. But really, even in their classrooms the focus is on the teacher and not the subject of study. Montessori requested her teachers to remain in the background; to come forward occasionally when necessary for classroom business or certain lessons, but otherwise to work unobtrusively with small groups or individuals. This allows children to work by themselves or with others to further their own projects. This is real empowerment! Seeing is believing. And this works. If you have never watched a Montessori classroom in action, you should make an appointment to view one. In Chicago there are some well established schools that likely would let you observe a class. Try making an appointment with either Near North Montessori School or Rogers Park Montessori school. Or find one that has been in existence at least five years in your own neighborhood.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Don't Good Teachers Empower Children?

It certainly seems true that a good teacher would empower children. That is the reason there is so much fussing and fuming about teachers who lack this power, and arguments over whether they should leave the profession to make way for those who have it. But no one teacher will have the magic to enthuse all children. That is the pipe dream that the Chicago Board of Education clings to. The reality of the situation is what keeps teachers' unions on their feet and fighting. Most teachers have chosen the profession because they like children and believe that they can help them learn. Of those who choose to be teachers because they thought teaching would be easy, very few last more than a year or two. So although perhaps there are a few who should go seek other professions, this pogrom to remove teachers who are less than charismatic is unfair to the profession and the children it is trying to serve.

Maybe we should look at the nature of empowerment. Certainly the ability to read should empower a child. And the ability to write. The ability to manipulate numbers can open the door to our monetary system. Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic, the three R's from long ago, are still what we lean on for a child's firm foundation. And yet, there is something we have been missing: the secret of empowerment lies not in the teacher, but in the child. It begins with his curiosity and continues with his freedom to investigate, to probe, to wonder and to learn. A teacher who is expert in instruction may be valued highly by her profession, but the child who initiates his own queries is the only child really empowered by his learning--because he has grasped the secret: the only real learning comes from within. Self initiated learning opens doors into rainbows of possibilities. Yes, teachers can train children to do things, but children who know how to initiate their own education will find lives that follow paths their teachers have never dreamed of.

Montessori education empowers children by freeing them to choose and to investigate. Traditional education informs a child, then tells him what to do with that information. Is it any wonder that half the male students who begin as freshman at Roberto Clemente, in my Chicago neighborhood, never stay to graduate? They say, "School? Jail? What's the difference?"

Sunday, October 10, 2010



On this October 2nd Saturday Night Live segment after the commercial (sorry about that) you will hear some serious comments on what is needed in today's public schools. These suggestions come from Morgan Freeman. That they were surprisingly accurate was remarkable enough, but it was the host's reaction that grabbed my attention. His dumbfounded stare before he glossed over Freeman's answers was typical of public educators today--like the words were uttered in some unintelligible language, the ideas they embody completely foreign. Just watch the discouraged expressions on Morgan Freeman's face as he tries to suggest two real improvements for our public education system.

Montessori education empowers children like no other, even beyond the empowerment Morgan Freeman is referring to. Besides love, there is no greater gift we can give our children.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Notice for Celebration!

Oh, I am so very happy! I have recently heard that several children who were in my class at the tender ages of three, four, and five, have now, as adults, chosen the teaching profession: Matthew Barber, Amy Cade, and Dan Rudnick! And maybe even the Montessori method. Congratulations to you three! May you have the great good fortune to have children in your classes as wonderful as you were.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Oldest Story Never Told

A "Great Lesson" for today:

A couple of days ago my friend and I, each with an occupied dog carrier, climbed into a taxi with an imposing disgruntled driver. “Dogs in the back! Dogs in the back!” he ordered, referring to a third seat, and then aimed a couple additional commands at us which I did not understand.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Africa,” was his reply.

“What country are you from? Africa is a big continent and I'm not smart enough to place your accent.”

“Nigeria. Where are you from?” Still a little hostile.

“Oh, I'm from the United States, the mid-west actually. Ohio.”

Then my friend pipes up from the third seat with the dogs, “I'm from Chicago. I'm Japanese but I was born here. Where were you born?”

“I am from Africa, Nigeria.”

To this I replied, “I guess we could all say we were from Africa.”

“Why do you say that?” He was caught off guard.

“Have you heard of the Human Genome Project? It is a group of people who are trying to find all the human genes. They have gone all around the world to collect representative samples from as many different people as they can locate. When they brought all the findings together, they saw that there were many different human genes in all the continents, but the only continent that had all of them, all the different genes, was Africa. That's when they knew...”

“Knew what?” His tone had changed.

“Well, maybe I should have said 'suspected.' That's when they realized that if all the genes were in Africa, then all of our ancestors must have brought them with them when they left Africa. In other words, we are all from Africa, only some of our families left sooner than others.”

“So why did they leave?”

“Well, according to a Nova program on PBS, they were hunters who depended on animals for food. When the animals ran out of food, they left for greener pastures, and for generations these hunters followed their prey.“

“I'm from Africa so why haven't I heard this?”

“I don't think very many people have heard this story. More people should tell it.”

Studies indicate that all modern humans share a common female ancestor who lived in Africa about 140,000 years ago, and all men share a common male ancestor who lived in Africa about 60,000 years ago. These were not the only humans who lived in those eras, and the human genome still contains many genetic traits of their even more ancient contemporaries. But these are only Humanity's most recent common ancestors. They are identifiable because their lineages have survived by chance in the special pieces of DNA that are passed down the gender lines nearly unaltered from one generation to the next. These ancestors are part of a growing body of fossil and DNA evidence indicating that modern humans arose in sub-Saharan Africa and began migrating, starting about 65,000 years ago, to populate first southern Asia, China, Java, and later Europe. Each of us living today has DNA that contains the story of our ancient ancestors' journeys.

From: genomics.energy.gov


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Making Friends with Non-phonetic Words

Even if the following exercises seem somewhat pedantic, their aim is to demonstrate how a competitive traditional group exercise can become a cooperative one. Refusing to fall back on competitive models can change he entire demeanor of a classroom.

Although we Montessorians focus on the phonetics of English, there is a subtle disclaimer thumbing its nose at the children as they pass by their cubbies: their own names. I have already written a little about the phonetic materials, sandpaper letters {“How Terry and Tracy learn to write in a Montessori classroom,” April 10, 2010) and the moveable alphabet (“The Moveable Alphabet,” July 30, 2010). These are the main parts of Montessori's language program, linked to each other and both phonetic. Of course, there is that non-phonetic aspect to English and for this most Montessori classrooms have a great variety of three-part matching cards, made up of one card having a picture with a label, a second having just the picture, and the third having only the label. Lessons are given using these cards, then children may take them out to match them by themselves. Many of these cards are connected to nomenclature relating to materials the children work with in the classroom. And there are yet more ways we can introduce the children to non-phonetic words. When we are sitting as a group, we can play games of word recognition.

Phase one: On a day in September I am sitting with the children in a circle on our rug area, not expressly for the purpose of lessons but because we are waiting. Three children are assembling the room for lunch, and the rest remaining in the circle are taking turns to wash their hands. Sometimes we play games or sing. But today is a time for a practical game of word recognition, in this case their own names. I hold up a name card. I read, “Joseph Katz.” Joseph stands up.
I say, “Joseph, please come here and look at this name card. I want you to be sure this is your name.”
Joseph walks to me and looking directly at the name card, he says, “Yes that's my name.”
I ask, “Can you read it for us, please?” as I hand it to him.
He looks down at it and reads, “Joseph Katz,” hands it back and walks to the hand washing stand.

This reading exercise, like the Montessori hand washing exercise, is a practical one. It enables every child to find his own cubby because each name card is as it appears on the cubby. Each is written on a strip of lined writing paper which any child can copy during class time to practice name writing, his own or even a friend's. I am using the names from this exercise, holding them up one at a time to call each child to wash. In the beginning of the year, I read each name aloud as I show it, then the child named rises to wash his hands. Since two-thirds of the class has been exposed to this game the previous year, before very long we are advancing to the next phase of my showing each name in silence. This can happen when I am certain that at least half the class recognizes their own names. Then I show the names without reading them myself but ask each child who stands to read his own name.

Phase two: It is early November now and we are again sitting in a circle, preparing to wash our hands. I show a name card, Anda Somer, that no one responds to. I say, “If you can read this name, very quietly raise your hand. We do need someone who can read this name. But please don't speak it out loud. We need someone quiet to help its owner read it.”
Several children volunteer by raising their hands. I choose Rollie. “Rollie, can you please take this name card and walk around the outside of the circle and hand this to its owner? Then whisper her name in her ear.” Rollie does and returns to his place.
I look at the whisper's recipient and ask, “Did he say your name?” The recipient nods. “And what did he say?”
“Anda Somer.”
“Was he right? Does this look like your name?”
“Now can you tell me what this says?”
“Anda Somer.”
“Anda, you may go to wash your hands.” She hands me the card as she leaves.”
This exercise works because the name cards are the same as those they see every day on their cubbies.

Fast forward to January and here we are sitting in that hand washing circle waiting again for lunch. Yesterday we sang and played musical games but today we are playing a different kind of word recognition game, this time with high frequency non-phonetic Dolch words.

I begin by holding up a Dolch word and saying, “This word is 'the,' a very useful word. Who would like to hold 'the'?” A hand goes up. “Sandy, can you hold 'the' for us and remember that it says 'the'?”
I continue the same way passing out “to,” “you,” “of,” and “was," our first five Dolch words.

“Now Sandy, look at your word, and if you can remember what it says, very quietly hold it up.“ Sandy is holding up his Dolch word. I say to the group, “If you know what it says, raise your hand, and Sandy will pick someone to say his word.”

Sandy picks Rafael who says, “The.”

I say, “Sandy, Is he right? If he's right, please hand Rafael the “the.” Sandy nods and hands him the card. I say, “Good, Rafael!. And Sandy, you can go to wash your hands.” And we proceed in a similar fashion with the next word “to,” and continue through the remaining three words, giving everyone possible a turn.

In my class we have thirty-three Dolch words that are available on the language shelf as an exercise or for reference. As a group we gradually work through them until we are saturated.
The other Dolch words are:

he, she, they, be, we
said, for, all, there, some
have, little, do, could, one
when, what, where, were, would
my, are, come, very, over
want, two, by