Thursday, November 19, 2015

Montessori Education Keeps Cursive Writing Alive

          During the middle of September, as school was starting, a NJ radio station posed a question about writing in cursive.  The question was, “Is it a good thing that cursive writing is no longer taught in our public schools and should cursive writing continue to be a dying art?”  Of course I heard some unintelligent and unsubstantiated answers.  Then I heard answers one might expect from both sides of the argument.  Some callers said things like, “What is the point of cursive, writing is dying out, computers will completely take over by the time our children are grown up, and the only thing we need cursive anymore for is our signature.”  On the other side of the argument callers said, “Cursive is a beautiful art, I think it is sad that they don’t teach it in school anymore, and cursive was the stepping stone for me to become an artist and one other person said cursive started when our country started.  Regardless, whether there is a right answer or a wrong answer, I feel very fortunate to teach in a system where cursive is revered.  When will enough be enough?  When will families stop letting people who are not trained in education decide what is best for their children?  There are clear benefits to writing in cursive and we should not let it become a “dying art.”  It is not an art form, but a beautiful form of communication that has benefits to the brain.  Learning cursive creates the opportunity in the brain to subconsciously be able to make connections during interactions in life.  Furthermore, I strongly suggest that this would not even be a topic of conversation if it was not for computers and unlimited fonts. 
          Like any Montessori teacher might do, first, let’s start with a brief history of cursive.  January 23rd is National Handwriting Day, which is a time to acknowledge the history and penmanship that our nation was founded on.  Yet, non-educators are trying to do away with it, to push more typing and screen time on us whether it be directly or indirectly.  Why is penmanship, cursive, celebrated on this day?  According to, it is because it is John Hancock’s birthday.  This day is in remembrance of his iconic signature on the Declaration of Independence.  This information alone is a lot of history to preserve, educate each other and our children.  We shouldn’t let the fast paced age of computers push our civilization’s history of writing out.  Computers should be left to be used as a tool for information and communication.
Originally, the Romans borrowed a form of cursive from the Etruscans and were the first to develop lower case script, which, flowed into modern day cursive.  By the late eighth century, Charlegmagne assigned a monk to produce a standardized craft.  From the influence of Roman characters, Carolingian Miniscule was created to feature lowercase and uppercase letters for maximum legibility.  From there the history continues to a form of cursive which became known as the Spencerian Method and then Austin Norman Palmer replaced that method during the turn of the century with a slightly different approach in American classrooms.  This form of cursive evolved and changed from there up until the present.  So, for centuries, cursive has been an integral part of our history’s way of communication.
            We are on the brink of losing the ability to write in cursive and yet now we have research to validate it to those who are becoming successful in taking it away from our children and our future.  So, the benefits of cursive handwriting based on an article entitled What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades by science writer Maria Konnikova.  She states, “Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information.  In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters – but how.” This has been proven by measured brain activity during writing, tracing and typing activities.  So, writing in cursive creates more brain activity than typing and it generates more words and ideas. It is a form of self-expression.  Furthermore, the science of graphology or the analysis of handwriting tells us that one’s personality traits are linked to the way one writes. To eliminate cursive is to make everyone the same.  Since the start of our Industrial Revolution and standardized public education, the government and politics has done a great job at pushing children through the system like factory workers.  Yet, Montessori preserves the individual and equips him/her to express themselves in their own unique way according to his/her own talents, characteristics and tendencies.
If you do further research you can find what our future generations will be missing in other school settings and why it matters. 
And so, I leave you with that.  Hopefully, your curiosity has been tapped and you look to do more, or say more or write more and please let it be in cursive.  Give yourself the opportunity to hold on to what is quickly becoming our past.  Learn for yourself and see that teaching and practicing cursive will help you and our children to better make other connections in life just as we are meant to connect our letters with a pencil or pen.


Sunday, May 3, 2015

Montessori Math not Memorizing Math

I came across an article entitled, “Memorizing Math is Wrong – This Study Shows Why,” which lead me to another article by USNews & World Report called, “Should We Stop Making Kids Memorize Times Tables?”  Both articles are interesting.  Upon reading both, I was instantly transported to my mom’s car in third grade when I was forced to continue to try and memorize my times tables by repeating them.  I remember hating every minute of it.  

Math was one of my better subjects up until about sixth grade.  I didn’t love it, I was just able to do it and get good grades.  From what I can remember it was because I did the work and memorized as I was told.  As I got older, math class became a great struggle for me.  It made no sense, I could apply very little to what was assigned and I lost a great deal of interest in it.  This carried on all the way through the well-respected all boys catholic high school that I went to and Jesuit College.  Not even tutors helped me to do more than just barely get by, especially when it came to geometry. 

Once I graduated college and became an assistant at a prominent Montessori School in Houston, my relationship with math began to change.  The vast materials were amazing, life changing, and the variety in which a child could learn how to do an operation was mind-opening.  Then I took the elementary training course that summer.  It was then that I knew my life and my way of understanding math would never be the same.  Scratch that, not even my way, but now there was a way that I did understand and memorizing did not matter.

As an elementary teacher, I have become known as being very good at math and teaching it.  Something that I never would have thought others would think of me.  But, I think there is something more to it and it is not really about me aside from a couple of things.  Parents of our present children have horrible memories when it comes to learning math.  What we are able to teach our children now is mind blowing, but it has been around for over a hundred years.  Most parents today do not realize that so when they see their fourth year child starting to understand what the algebraic expression of the binomial cube is, they are blown away because they definitely did not learn and understand that in elementary, let alone at around age 10.  This is not an exception to the rule, this is the norm in an authentic Montessori program.

A call to action would be to look for or make sure your child is in an authentic Montessori program.  One that encourages different ways of learning and teaching it in more than one way.  Not just with math.  However, it is a shame to think that something as universal as math is so misunderstood because it is so dominantly taught by way of rote memorization.  If your child does not understand it, if you do not understand it and cannot apply it to the real world, than what is the point, really? There is a way for your child to be happy, to be educated.  That way is an authentic Montessori program where they can thrive and understand what they are doing and why they are doing it.  Learning is not merely a means to an end, but rather a journey that is rewarding, practical and enjoyable.   

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Being Brave

Being Brave

             What does it mean to be brave?   Choosing to be brave is not a destination, but a journey that is traveled every day.   Being brave is a choice.   It does not have to be a magnificent act.   Practicing or making the choice to be brave can be about the choice to go through the process of overcoming a fear or doing something even though you are scared.   As a Montessori educator, being brave is a duty of the guide for the sake of both the children and families.   I have tremendous gratitude for Judith Cunningham, Michael Jacobson and the Montessori Model United Nations.   It is because of them, and the forum that they have created, that I can communicate and better understand bravery. The children and families also inspire me to strive to be a good role model and to do myself what I ask of the children to do.  

             Last year, I participated as a President on the Dais for one of the committees at the Montessori Model United Nations Conference in New York City.   I decided to open up the session by asking the delegates (students) what being brave meant to them.   Then I shared with them what being brave meant to me.  Next, I encouraged them to utilize this safe forum to choose to do one thing that scared them or that they were nervous about.   It could be something such as raising your placard, standing and announcing that you were present and voting in front of over 60 strangers.   Or, if you were scared to meet someone new, go up to someone in the committee and introduce yourself.   I had such an overwhelmingly positive experience with that and such great feedback that I decided to do it again this year when I was invited back to be President at the conference again.

             I was definitely tested at the conference to exercise what I thought I needed to be brave about last year.   However, this year’s biggest test of bravery for me at the conference brought me the greatest gift of awareness.   So, I did my bravery spiel again, and the search for a resolution on the topic of whaling between approximately 30 countries and 60 delegates began.   The room was buzzing; excitement was in the air.   Twenty to thirty parents were in the room observing in the back at any given time.   While everything was moving wonderfully, something different was happening this year that I had not experienced before.   Parents were trying to involve themselves.

             They were passing notes to the children, which I did not find out about until later in the day, and it was not just in my room.   Some were actually trying to influence their children.   Then, in the afternoon, a parent yelled across the room after a vote and said, “I don’t think the children understand.”   I was shocked; this is not supposed to happen in a Montessori environment, let alone a Montessori Model United Nations environment. I had a flash of being at a baseball game and seeing a parent obnoxiously yelling to the children.   This was not okay.   However, it was the end of the session and the parent privately apologized.   Unfortunately, for me, this was not over. Something needed to be done, but what?

             For much of the night I thought about how to handle this situation.  How could I change the dynamics that were being created in this forum?   I could not allow any other parent to think it was okay to interject or continue to take away the possibility for self-directed learning from any of these children.   In my mind, that was my responsibility, the children. Something had to be done, and when I realized a solution that was a possibility, I knew it would not be a popular one.   It was going to be difficult, and many things could go wrong.   Yet, I was a President of a committee, I spoke to the delegates about being brave, education is my life, and in my heart I knew what I needed to do, despite fears of possible undesirable outcomes.

             It was not until the session began that I made the final decision.   I briefed the Dais about my concern and unhappiness with regards to how some parents conducted themselves the day before.   Then, I told them that, because of that, I was going to probably ask the parents to leave the room so that I could speak privately with the delegates.   I explained to them that I did not recommend this, but based on the circumstances, I felt it was the right decision to make, for the sake of the delegates.

             And so, the session began with roll call.   After that, I addressed the parents and let them know that it was not okay to give negative reactions in the back of the room, pass notes to the delegates or speak across the forum to express an opinion.   With that, I asked them to leave the room and the Dais would invite them back in approximately ten minutes after the delegates were addressed.  
             As President, I explained to the delegates that voting on draft resolutions was their decision alone, being on the speaker’s list was their choice, and while it might be hard, they should not let their parents or chaperone persuade them during the session.   I explained to them that a parent calling out across the room as one did the previous day was not okay and just as they are expected to conduct themselves in a certain way, so are the adults in the back of the room.   Along with that, we reopened the floor to vote on whether the delegates would like to vote on the current draft resolution without the parents present.   The delegates voted in favor of voting on the draft resolution, and once we did, it passed unanimously.   The Dais then invited the parents back into the room.

             At the end of the conference, parents still shook my hand, complimented me, asked to have me take a picture with their child, and I also received at least one apology.   This experience taught me several things.   Good things can happen when you follow your heart.   This experience was about the children and that gave me the courage to follow my heart, which in turn, led to my experience of making sure I modeled what I spoke about, being brave.  

             It is my hope that, in sharing this story, guides, administrators, and parents can take away something positive from it.  My purpose was to show a personal story that might help someone else decide to be brave no matter how big or small the situation.   Often times, our imaginations make things look more scary than they actually are.   I would like to encourage you to share your story or thoughts about being brave.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Montessori Environment and Optimism

It can be agreed upon that there is both a business and practical side to running a Montessori School.   Michael Thompson stated at the 2015 AMI Refresher Course that 95% of parents have good will, a good heart, and benefit from regular feedback.   That leaves only 5% of parents who are difficult to work with.   Those are really encouraging statistics for both staff and administrators to remember and that optimism is really the duty of the school and staff.   Thompson also says that two kinds of parents, who fall under that 5%, are either threatening, intimidating and assaulting or anxious.  
With the first group, the administration needs to stand by their teacher, who should never be left alone with that parent.  Documenting conversations is important too, so those interactions can be referred to in the future.   This reduces the amount of discrepancies when having future conversations.  

When working with the anxious parent, wording things correctly and positively are so important.  When communicating with anxious parents, they need reassurance about their child.  For example, share the observations made about the student, but also identify the potential. Ask if the parent has any suggestions about what can be done together to support the child so that he/she can reach their ultimate potential.

The teacher or administrator must do his/her best to be encouraging and patient.   However, gently drawing boundaries to protect your time is important as well.  When expressing concern, it is also important to state what is being observed objectively without adding negative emotion.   The guide and administrator must be succinct in communicating observations and optimism. 

The expression of optimism between administrators, to staff and with families is paramount.   We should also leave room for parents to have a bad day or week and not take things personally.   As humans, we have to deal with our own issues.   We have our own external and internal judgments and perceptions that can often be misjudgments and misperceptions.   Sometimes, teachers and administrators have bad days, which can affect their interaction with the children and or parents.  
However, Michael Thompson also shares the importance of what it means to be a leader.   Both the administration and staff must be examples for the school.   The administrator must be an icon.   The history and mission of the school should be easily describable.   With everything that goes on in one’s life, at the very least, the administrator should act both professionally and charismatically, the same way the administrator needs the staff to act composed and with an approachable posture for the sake of the children, despite what is going on personally or professionally.   Michael Thompson is adamant in expressing that the administrator must thrust and trust themselves out there.   Additionally, it is important to inspire the staff to do the same.  

Throughout my time in the Montessori classroom, I have received a lot of advice from many people working in the Montessori environment, as well as from parents.   Some advice, which was mentioned at the refresher course was, “you can’t care more than the person who owns the problem.”   While part of me has looked at the rationale of this advice as a way to not get emotionally attached to a situation, it still was always bothersome to me.   Another thing that was said, similar to the old adage, is that “no good deed goes unpunished.”   Either way, those are pessimistic excuses to not have to deal with a situation professionally, head on, and with love.  

This led me to think about Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa and others.   They didn't own the problem, but they were involved in it.   As educators and owners of schools, a problem involving families is ours to help manage or solve to the extent that the family allows us to participate.   By being in this profession, we decided to be contributing members to humanity and its future.  

Through a correspondence with Maren Schmidt via the Elementary Alumni Association Yahoo group, she reminded me (us) that love is a verb.   She stated that love is not a feeling or state of being.   Then she mentioned the same thing that I was thinking, “we have a choice between love and fear.”   Maren went on to share a version of The Paradoxical Commandments written by Keith M. Kent, which reads as follows:

People are often unreasonable, irrational and self-centered;
Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish and ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies;
Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere, people may deceive you;
Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight;
Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.

The good you do today will often be forgotten:
Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway. 

What I took from the refresher course was both validating and exactly what I needed.   Be compassionate to everyone.   When we have trouble, there are tools and resources in the Montessori community to help us find our center again.   Inclusion, as much as possible, is the key to success and fulfillment, whether as an administrator, guide, or parent.   We have a role to fulfill and therefore a duty to, at the very least, act as such.   

Friday, January 30, 2015

Communicating Montessori: Food For Thought

As educators of the Montessori pedagogy we sometimes make assumptions about parents.   We assume that they think what we are saying is important to them.   Often times we communicate Montessori jargon because it makes so much sense to those of us that have been trained.   It has become second nature to communicate in a “Montessori way.”    What is really important to parents?   For one, we have to ask them, we have to listen, and we have to connect with them at the heart level.   They want to trust us as much if not more than we want to trust them.   Parents are hoping to entrust us with their most precious seed(s).   Ultimately, they want to know and see their seed(s) be in a nurturing environment where they will grow and flourish to their fullest potential.   What do we say and how do we show parents that a Montessori experience gives their seed(s) the best chance with the best conditions for them to grow to their fullest potential?   That is really a loaded question and each guide and administrator probably needs to figure that out for themselves while taking this journey.   However, I came across leaflet No. 1 from “A Parent’s Guide to the Montessori Classroom” by Aline D. Wolf.   This led me to want to share a few insights and practical information from this leaflet and my own experience.

In the first part of Aline’s leaflet entitled No. 1 The Purpose of Montessori Education, she states that “early childhood education should not be to fill the child with facts from a pre-selected curriculum, but rather to cultivate her own natural desire to learn.”   So we communicate to the parents and especially the unfamiliar parent that our classrooms are designed to cultivate your child’s innate natural desire to learn.   Just as a seed grows into what it is supposed to grow into when under the right conditions, your child too will grow into what he or she is supposed to grow into.   A true Montessori classroom and a nurturing, well executing guide will foster the innate characteristics and tendencies (can you link this to my article) of your child.   How?   First, this is done by giving the child the experience of “controlled” exploration to experience the excitement of learning.   The guide helps the child to master the tools being used to learn the given activities.   The materials are the physical expression utilized to fulfill both an immediate and long range purpose.   There can be many and it varies for each material.   However, for example think about how the knob cylinders are used both for their immediate purpose, but also to encourage a correct pencil grip.   That leads us to the section in the leaflet of How the Children Learn.

It states that “Dr. Montessori always emphasized that the hand is the chief educator of the child.   We now have research to prove that not only is that true for children, but also it is simply true for humans.   More can be learned about this from Dr. Steve Hughes, a board-certified pediatric neuropsychologist   What better experience to give our children then to be in an environment that incorporates hands on learning for every subject area?   What parent doesn't want to see their child become more independent at an earlier age?   We can talk to them about a couple of practical life experiences that can help bridge the gap between the home and school experience.   What about the parent that sincerely asks, “Why is this so important for my 3-6 year old, they are not even six?”

Well, this leads us to what we are all familiar with, the Sensitive Periods.   Parents may have noticed their child is beginning to have an intense fascination with things.   They may be simple, like putting parts of toys in order or doing an activity over and over again.   Aline states, “The Montessori classroom takes advantage of this fact by allowing the child freedom to select individual activities which correspond to her own periods of interest.”    In the classroom, they can put things in order all that they need too, they can learn other skills to practice such as pouring, slicing apples, washing a table.   All of these things foster a sense of order through their steps and meet the need of organizing through the experience of the whole activity.  

The last section of the leaflet is, At What Ages?   Essentially, Montessori pedagogy is crucial for all ages of the child.   It is not just for 3-6 year old children.   And it is certainly not another day care.   It is a true preparation for life.   Not to be confused with a preparation for life through a drudging and rote learning process.   Yet, it is a self-rewarding, self-fulfilling, interdependent and enthusiastic process.   This is not just true for the child, but parents would also like to know that the same is true for the guide.   That is a communication that is often left out.   It is something that many public and traditional private school teachers are not getting to experience with the children they are teaching.   Communicate when possible that Montessori education also happen before primary and after primary in an elementary program.   I am shocked by how many parents didn't even know that elementary even existed.   This reminds me to always keep an open mind, listen, ask questions and assume nothing.   The servant’s heart is necessary not only in working with the child, but also the adult.   Sometimes we forget that.

My hope is that this served as some food for thought.   Please share your thoughts, comments and food.   Thank you for taking the time to read.   

Thursday, January 1, 2015

From Dream to Reality

Never give up on what you really want to do. The person with big dreams is more powerful than the one with all the facts.  ~ H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
            The date is now January 1, 2015. I came across this quote, and credit for it was given to Albert Einstein. Since I tend to be one to check my sources, I found that it may actually have been written by H. Jackson Brown, Jr., who wrote a best-selling book in the early 90’s called “Life’s Little Instruction Book.” Another source that I found said that the author was unknown. Whoever wrote it, how fitting it seems to me that this is the title, because what I have to share compliments this quote and vice versa. With that said, I would like to share a personal story that is and will always be on-going, transforming and growing. The story started several years ago. 
When the story began, I thought I saw the ending. However, I was very wrong! The story was not ending, but simply changing and evolving. I am so grateful that I found this quote, because it brought me to a realization that goes along with my story.  And so my story begins as follows:
            Several years ago, I thought my life was planning itself out before my very eyes. Everything was falling into place. I knew I would become the head of a certain Montessori school, everything was pointing in that direction. Big ideas and simple ideas were coming to me to help make improvements and I was completely supported. It felt GREAT! The calling and passion that I had longed to realize was beginning to unfold. I loved being a Montessori teacher, but even before I started this job that I was at, I knew that I wanted to lead a high quality, enjoyable, nurturing Montessori environment. 
            To what I thought was my dismay, except for the last half of 2014, the last three years were probably the worst three consecutive years of my life. By the spring of 2014 I felt this plan, this dream, slowly ripped from my fingertips as if I was holding on to the ledge of a rock for dear life. Then in June of 2014, I could no longer hold on. Falling far and fast, something happened along the way down. While fear and uncertainty were certainly present, a sense of peace, fortitude and faith came into my being like light shining its way into darkness. What I thought was my goal, my ambition, my reason for waking up in the morning changed. Going above and beyond, without a care for recognition, was being replaced with resentment, frustration, and uncertainty. 
            Then, within a day, that resentment, frustration and uncertainty of a cocoon that I felt I was in, was actually a cocoon that I broke free from to be transformed forever. I was encouraged to start my own school. Starting my own school in eight weeks seemed like an impossibility. Yet, there was nothing left for me to do, but to do just that. With the help and support of colleagues and parents, that is exactly what happened. Over the summer of 2014 there were many ups and downs that occurred almost on a daily basis. 
            The story of that summer could be a book in and of itself. The very short version of that book is that Montessori Seeds of Education opened its doors in a newly renovated school attached to a church on September 2, 2014. People said that it was impossible, and it seems like it is, but there is one thing I know for sure.  Never give up on what you really want to do. The person with big dreams is more powerful than the one with all the facts.  ~ H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
Adding to that quote, “The people behind and who walk with the person with big dreams help that dream to never be given up on and together they are even more powerful than the one or those with all the facts.” There is more to this story and more to this quote, but I will share that in the next post.
              In the meantime, I would like to ask and encourage you to share your own story. Did you achieve something that was against all odds? Is there something you want to achieve, but are afraid to go after?  Maybe you can share something that may not seem grandiose, yet it might make all the difference for someone else who reads what you have to share.