Saturday, November 12, 2016

Unity and Montessori

Dear Fellow Colleagues and Parents,

In light of negative reactions that have been occurring around the country with regards to the election, what families are going through, what our schools are going through and communications that have been occurring in different online Montessori groups, I feel compelled to share something on this topic. My hope is to help with bringing about more of a sense of unity, regardless of disagreements and personal opinions. Also, I would like to stress the duty that we have to our children and peers.

On the Montessori Teachers Facebook group, Andy Lulka posted:

Many of our members in and out of the USA are fearful today, in a state of shock and grief. Many others are feeling joy - or at least relief. I see in my feed so much pain, so much division. We cannot bring that in here.

I ask only this: Pause. Pause before responding, pause before hitting enter. Make sure your words are healing today.

We have remained a sanctuary from the divisive partisan dialogue out there this far, we will continue to remain so.

Montessori asked us to rise above politics. This is a great time for us to practice that. This seems like a good time to remember Dr. Montessori's words, published just a few years after the second world war: 

Not in the service of any political or social creed should the teacher work, but in the service of the complete human being, able to exercise in freedom a self-disciplined will and judgment, unperverted by prejudice and undistorted by fear.
- Maria Montessori (To Educate The Human Potential), 1948

Please take the time to reflect on these words and make a mindful decision before sharing a certain opinion and what the possible ramifications of that decision may be. We have rights as Americans, we have free-will as human beings, but we also have the ability to use our minds to create unity and choose unity over divisiveness, which does not always reflect our immediate opinions. Even if we cannot create macrocosmic change immediately, we can create change microcosmically immediately. You may be wondering where am I going with all of this. Well, I want to share with you what I think my duty is as an educator, elementary Montessori teacher, head of school and founder. 

Every fall around an election time, children come in with “their opinions” about candidates. Usually it is an echo of what they are hearing or what is being supported at home. Disagreements break out and frustration levels rise between students. I have been around long enough now where I know this is going to happen and it is a mediation, political, and inclusive educational time. In the roles that I have, I feel it is my duty to teach the children about the government, politics, and structure from an objective perspective. So, I am not going to talk about the past couple of months but the present and what we can do now in light of reactions our children are probably seeing and hearing about. 

Whether we agree with it or not, whether he was being honest in his communication or not, President Obama made a choice to communicate unity with President Elect Trump to the public. This seems like what we need to be willing to communicate to our children, staff and co-workers. Unity is the key to rise above social or political creed. Our personal opinion about sides does not have to match our expression of what is universally right. It is a fact that a universal truth or fact is something everyone can agree on and it is inclusive, never divisive. 

An elected politician can make our lives more difficult, and if it affects enough people, can obviously force change amongst a larger power or group. However, while this is a point that can be communicated, this is also not the purpose of this communication. We (educators and parents) have to teach our children to come together for what is right from a place of peace and not fear or anger. 

Those of us who have been around long enough know that things always have a way of working themselves out. Let’s teach our children about facts and truths at an age appropriate level. Heads of schools and Guides should unite in not expressing their opinion even to each other, but communicating truths and unity. It might be best to share our personal opinions with our friends, families, and/or spouses. Being a part of the Montessori Philosophy and education puts us in a place of power. That power should be used to reflect. 

Here at a wonderful NAMTA conference in San Jose California, a fellow “Montessorian” expressed her passion for being an adolescent guide. She read us a beautiful quote and one that drives her. I want to leave you with this thought. 

The educator has the power to give your child(ren) the world and they have the power consciously and unconsciously to make the world, or the place in which they try to find where they fit in the world, to be non-existent. 

What a magnanimous responsibility we have as educators and parents!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Tying it all together: Leadership, Connecting, Mindfulness, and Thinking

Over the course of this academic calendar year I have written about several different topics. I had mentioned that eventually I would come full circle and tie some of those topics together. Effectively connecting with students at the heart level, connecting to the heart through awareness, and intuitive, critical and analytical thinking are all important components of a happy, successful, and fulfilled Montessori school. In fact, I would say for just about any organization, but we are fortunate enough to be talking about Montessori and this environment gives us the freedom and responsibility to be able to do this. I will go so far as to say it is the duty of the head of school to establish this momentum for the staff so that they can overflow to the children and facilitate a symbiotic relationship with the parents. The head of school must be mindful, connect at the heart level and instill an awareness of these things, as well as of the impact that Maria Montessori’s education has on developing intuitive, critical and analytical thinking for the students.

In August, the head of school can and should start doing exercises and communicating with the staff about the importance of mindfulness, awareness, connecting at the heart level and open communication. The head of school should study leadership regularly and be a model for these qualities and practices. The question is, how can the head of school and guides do this? Well, it starts with the leader of the staff, parents and children. A mission statement is the first line of communication to indicate any of these things. Families want to know more than that the guide cares and is effective, but that the school as a whole does as well. In my eyes, a head of school should be firm, but open-minded, compassionate and understanding, and people should be made to feel this. Ice breakers should happen at the beginning of the year. Not just silly ones, but ones that help everyone to get to know each other on a deeper level. If the guides are excited to be there, that will trickle down to the children and parents.

Heads of schools already have an advantage because Montessori guides already want to be there; they just also want to feel connected, welcomed, appreciated and engaged. Just like the children and parents want to feel. Plus, it is a special person who decides to go through the rigorous training of being a guide. Guides should be checked in with regularly, naturally joke with them a little bit and speak to them more about school when possible. These special people want to make a difference and we are honored to be in a position to encourage and support them to do so.  Do something special for their birthdays, help to celebrate their life and your appreciation for them being in yours. Talk about awareness, and if you do not know about it, learn. Ask them engaging questions to think about their classroom differently and always bring conflict and misunderstandings to the fundamentals, hopefully your school’s mission. If guides are not mindful and aware, then the children can’t be. Remind them to breathe and take a step back, compliment them. Ask them if they are teaching and having the children do that as well. Sometimes we get so caught up in pedagogy and curriculum that we lose sight of the heart and the person.

Guides should have opportunities to teach the children to de-stress. Have them teach diaphragmatic breathing. Maybe yoga classes can be given on Friday afternoons. Show the children how to slow down a few minutes each day with some deep breaths. The guides should be remembering to smile and laugh with the children as well as be good managers of their classrooms. How am I encouraging any of the three types of thinking today? What materials encourage any of the given three types of thinking? Why is this important? We want our students to be super thinkers, to the best of their ability. What if they were able to better access and use both their right and left hemispheres more effectively? It does not have to be, oh I am more left brained or more right brained. Give them the opportunity to explore and develop both. This is what I mean by a super thinker. One who can access both hemispheres and practice mindfulness and being aware. These are fantastic life skills, not innate, individual traits.

What do the parents want? If you do not know, and do not assume, then ask them? Give them a survey or ask personally. Ultimately, most parents want their children to thrive, be happy and they want to know what is going on. Montessori is foreign to them, even if parents think they know. In fact, most guides are still learning about their understanding and concept of Montessori’s teachings, even years after being involved in it. Being human often gets in the way of our learning. Being a Montessori head of school, guide, parent and child is a lot like authenticity in that it is a journey and not a destination. Let me also clarify that we are ever so much more than a Montessori school, head of school, guide, child or parent. We are all human beings, some would say spiritual beings having the human experience of manifesting what a woman concluded from her observations and work. However, yes, it is easier to say Montessori school, head of school, guide, child, and parent. Yet, I feel it is so much nicer to have this understanding when we say that.

In essence, we have to constantly work on knowing ourselves and giving those around us the opportunity to know themselves too. Education is nothing without that. Connecting at the heart level is the key to communication and education. Awareness is the opportunity to see it. Mindfulness is the process we use to get there through the tool of Montessori’s approach. Communicate, be open, take a step back, breathe, and connect. It’s a very fulfilling process and an honor to be part of such a journey.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Intuitive, Critical and Analytical Thinking in the Elementary Classroom - Part 2

My last post was about critical thinking. After doing much research on intuitive, critical and analytical thinking I decided that it makes sense to combine intuitive and analytical thinking for this post. A person can do one without the other, but to be as proficient and successful as possible we need to utilize both. There has even been a term that has been coined to combine both, which is "design thinking." In an article called, “The Design of Business,” the author states that “design thinkers observe the world, imagine alternatives, and bring them into being.” Critical and analytical thinking actually complement each other. 

Analytical thinking is used to break down a complex idea into a series of steps. This is done to create an overall conclusion. For example, a person would ask why something is the way it is and then come to a so called scientific conclusion. Whereas intuitive thinking is not based on time, it’s dynamic, looks at the big picture, and is subjective. A metaphor for understanding what intuitive thinking is would be like when you see with your eyes and observe the whole environment at once. If you think about it, you might notice a brief moment before you start judging and identifying people and things.

In that moment is where you are “seeing the big picture.” Whereas, utilizing analytical thinking would be where you begin to focus in on something specific. Or, you might ask why something is the way it is and then take steps to figure it out. Being in a Montessori Environment definitely nurtures and supports the development of these ways of thinking. A book entitled, “Thinking in English: A New Perspective on Teaching ESL,” in part, talks about the success of the Montessori Method and that many other types of teachers, parents and children testify to Montessori’s Methods. It states that, “We give recognition to the innate intelligence of the student and acknowledge that students can and do teach themselves many things that are necessary for survival through intuitive learning.” 

This is in reference to the freedom given in this environment for the child to explore with material. When we give the children the freedom to explore with their hands, their minds are satisfied by the action of movement. They are given the space to think about what they are working with and adapt when a road block or question arises to do as Montessori said the child wants, “help to do it by myself.” This is also a key to fostering independence and practical life skills. 

These are all important components of a Montessori Education, when really, these should be common place components of education in general. Furthermore, my understanding is that she did not want her findings to be coined as a method. Since our traditional education methods are continuing to go in the opposite way, meaning away from supporting a human’s natural tendencies, you can see the effect it is having on our present college level generation. It is terrifying to think what statistics will look like when our present elementary aged children are in college.

In a Montessori classroom setting the child is free to explore. They are free to make mistakes and learn from them to understand why. Concentration and socialization is encouraged, not interrupted or stifled. Guides and heads of Montessori schools should think of ways they already foster different types of thinking, so it is a more conscious effort. In fact, I have a request for any guide, parent or head of school. Would you comment on examples of how any of these types of thinking are or can be fostered in a Montessori classroom? I would like to compile a list and share it with other online groups that could possibly benefit.

Additionally, we should be thinking of how to more directly encourage activities, such as team-building exercises. They are great ways to foster several wonderful qualities and types of thinking. While a Montessori school experience can naturally foster team building through its group work, I think in this day and age we need more diverse experiences. There is more than one way to learn how to divide or multiply in the classroom among other academic activities. Our schools should come up with a couple of outdoor or indoor team-building activities. For instance, especially at the beginning of the year, I find it helpful to take the Upper elementary on a camping trip designed for team building or a day trip centered around team-building and communication at a local camp.

As always, I look forward to your comments and your insight into examples of how any of these types of thinking are or can be fostered in a Montessori classroom. I really think bringing more educators the awareness of consciously fostering different types of thinking could be of great value for all. Understanding what faculties we are using helps us to become more aware of ourselves. As it is believed Socrates said, “Know Thyself.” Some would argue that is one of the most important things we can do and pass on for our children to take the journey to do themselves.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Intuitive, Critical and Analytical Thinking in Elementary

The A.M.I. Journal 2014 – 2015, Theme Issue: The Montessori Foundations for The Creative Personality, has an article in it called "Intuitive and Analytical Thinking" by Jerome Bruner.  It was first published in The Process of Education, 1960. After reading it, I thought about the elementary children and three different types of thinking: intuitive, critical and analytical. Analyzing these three different types of thinking is a critical issue that may not often be spoken about together and may even be more intuitively practiced by some without even realizing it with respect to the elementary classroom. My reflections and research on this topic will not be comprehensively covered in this blog post. Instead, my goal is to wet the whistle, inspire with a nugget and walk away just as we should in the classroom. I will touch on each type of thinking, at least one application in the elementary classroom, and a call to consciously implement opportunities for our students to practice and identify these types of thinking. defines critical thinking as disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence. Research shows that the definition has changed over the decades, but one thing remains constant. That is a need to provide effective solutions to complex problems. The elementary classroom provides opportunities to foster this skill all day long. Let’s look at the characteristics of fairness and justice. Conflicts and questions are constantly arising in the classroom. What is fair and just to a 6 or 7 year old might not be enough or the same for an eleven or twelve year old. Group discussions are great to show different points of view and to let children experience what the different ages think about the same topic. However, here is an example of a one-on-one opportunity.

“Mr. Matt, how come the little kids never do any work, or help clean up, says one student?” My reply is that, “First of all, there are no little goats in our classroom (with a smile). Let me understand what you are saying here with your statement to me. You mean that you think that the lower elementary children never do any work or clean up. And by never are you saying that I’m not teaching them, they do not listen, and it is not fair?” Her reply was, “No, I know you teach them, and they do not never do work or clean.”  So I asked, “Then what do you mean?”

“They can just be loud, and they move around more than us, and compared to us, the older children, they barely help clean.”  I answered her by saying, “Those are all good observations. This is what I think about when I hear you say those things. When you were their age, you were the same exact way. You used to get frustrated with the older children for getting frustrated with you.  So you clung more to the children that were your age and younger. In the same exact way that you are coming to me now, there were children who came to me who you remember.  They said the same thing about you and your friends.

Anyway, remember how we have spoken about how humans have a lot of things about them that are the same?  Well, at the age of all the children in this classroom, being fair and just is very important. So, what you are thinking that is unfair and unjust, some of the younger children might be thinking that what they are doing is fair and just.” “How can that be, she asked?” I inquired, “Well, let me ask you a question instead. What could you do to be solution-focused to make yourself feel better?”

After some thought, she concluded, “I could probably sit down and do work with them, I could like be their partner for part of the day and maybe during clean up. If other people feel the same way, then we could partner with the younger children.” “Another thing for you to keep in mind is, are you judging them based on your standard of getting work done and cleaning up and not what the ability of a seven year old might be?”  With an amazed look on her face, she said to me, “I had never thought of it like that.”

“I appreciate you coming to me with a critical issue for you that always comes up in the elementary classroom. There might be more for you to think about on this topic. Who knows, you might help make the dynamics even better than they already are in the classroom." With that, this student was satisfied, and replied, "okay Mr. Matt," and went on to her work again.

Throughout the year I have really been contemplating different types of thinking and how they seem to be less and less evident in students over the past couple of years, at least less than I remember when I first started teaching. So, I started to make it a mission of mine to delve deeper into understanding different types of thinking and how to deliberately foster them more in the classroom. This is why I decided to write about intuitive, critical and analytical thinking.

Over the last couple of months I've posted "Connecting to the Heart Through Awareness" and "Effectively Connecting with Students at the Heart Level," So, as mentioned in the previous posts, I will continue to talk more about perception, mindfulness and connecting at the heart as well as experiences with that and how it all came together.  However, I wanted to do a little segue: a three part post on critical thinking, analytical thinking and intuitive thinking. Then I plan to tie everything together in time for the 2016 - 2017 school year.

As always I look forward to your comments!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Connecting to the Heart Through Awareness

The common connotation of the term "self centered" is having a "preoccupation." In order to be "self centered" one has to be preoccupied with oneself and one's own affairs. It's during a person's childhood that a person tends to be stuck in preoccupation, and unless one is given the right tools and knowledge, they may be stuck in a rut of self centeredness for the rest of their lives. By giving children tools to understand what self centeredness should be, they can better understand the impact of being aware of oneself and their environment, rather than focusing on the self. 

A byproduct of focusing on the self, for example,  may be focusing on singular aspects of the environment and making children aware that there is more to be aware about than the singular self. In considering how to help students connect with themselves at the heart and how to help the guide connect with students at the heart (a very important component to educating the child) the guide should also consider the importance of redefining "self centered" so that it's not just a negative connotation, but a natural human tendency in general to have a sense of self centeredness. It goes along with self preservation, but to truly develop and mature into being a successful, fulfilled member of society, one also has to be self aware and aware of their own environment. 

So, let's focus on two qualities or personality traits: self centeredness and awareness. Let's understand self centeredness and what it means to bring that understanding to the children, followed by what it means to be aware, coupling the benefits and impact this can potentially have, by giving a child this tool for their future and the future in general.

When one is self centered one is preoccupied with oneself, and that, in and of itself, is a negative experience. Bad habits and addictions can come from self centeredness, whether they be drastic addictions such as drugs and alcohol to overeating to relational addictions like being involved in dramatic relationships or not being able to be social, because you are so self centered that you are not able to participate in relationships by reciprocating other feelings or being self sacrificing in enough of a way to maintain a healthy relationship or friendship. Once understanding that, let's redefine self centeredness for our purposes and associate it with self preservation. If self centeredness, in this way, is about self preservation, it's already equipping a child to have healthy relationships and a healthy life. 

With that said, it's important to have a conversation with the children about this idea of self centeredness and the distinction between self centeredness and self preservation. You can ask the elementary child to think about times that they may be self centered and self preserving in that they are caring about themselves or striving to be a better friend or brother or sister. You can revisit it in a few days, after introducing the concept, if they can't think of any examples immediately. An example of a child being self centered might be saying, "Im not going to do this work with you because I'm doing what I want to do. You need to go find your own thing to do." In some cases, you might just hear a child say, "Go away." When a guide hears this, it is the perfect opportunity to shed awareness of the child's ability to communicate differently and express kindness and understanding, which always dissipates one's self centeredness as being the preoccupation of oneself or one's activity. 

An example of self centeredness with our definition would be that an older child might be doing a creative great work, utilizing their imagination. A younger child then gets a work similar to theirs and sits near them and starts trying to copy what they are doing and becoming a distraction to the older child and their work. While we know, as a Montessori guide, that the self preservation of a child's concentration is of utmost importance, there have to be, either exceptions to the rule, or exceptions for the opportunity for greater possibilities. This is one of those times. So, when the older child comes to the guide and says, "this person is bothering me and distracting me and copying my work." It is a chance for the guide to say that they understand how they feel and it must feel frustrating, but ask the child to look at it from a different perspective, before asking the child to choose something else. 

The guide can simply say, "think about you being that child once, for no other reason than you liked them and looked up to them or you wanted to participate in that, but were too scared to ask. So instead, consider giving the opportunity of appreciating that that child is looking up to you as a role model rather than just trying to annoy you and see if you can be there and appreciate that that is what he or she is doing." 

In most cases, as has been my experience, when we communicate with a child in this way, they become more aware of this perception and they're no longer self centered in a preoccupied way, but as long as they can preserve their own work, they can understand their fellow student, because they are trying to do great work too. One might say that this is simply showing empathy, and while that's true, there is no empathy without awareness first. So empathy and other attributes that can be experienced are by-products of being aware first. 

What does it mean to be aware? Being aware or having awareness is the ability to perceive through multiple lenses. When we're on the ground we can see the street in front of us, the trees around us, houses, cars and people. If we climbed a ladder to the roof of a house, we could see the grooves of other homes, people, trees, the street and cars, from literally a different perspective. Additionally, if you got on a plane and you looked at the window as you started to take off, you would see even more from a different perspective. 

Being aware is nothing more than seeing the environment and your experiences from a different perspective. Through our interactions with the children, we use their conflicts as tools to see different perspectives, which brings more awareness to themselves, the environment, their experiences and the people around them. The next step that comes from practicing awareness is deciding what story you want to hold onto and tell yourself. 

Giving the children the opportunity and the choice of which story to hold onto is the key to practicing a fulfilling life. When giving them the experience to choose and letting them have the opportunity to see that choosing a negative story only leads to negative outcomes, you give them the gift of realizing that, holding onto the positive story, yields positive results. These positive results may not be right away, but they always outweigh holding onto a negative perspective. 

In conclusion, both the traditionally accepted definition of self centeredness as well as the new definition of self centeredness needs to be understood, which basically involves removing the sense of preoccupation. Self awareness can come from utilizing the tool of mindfulness, simple meditation, or being given the opportunities to be guided through experiences. Overall, one becomes better at being aware through the conscious daily experience of living and in the beginning, having someone being able to guide you through those experiences in a noninvasive way. In the end, being able to connect with your own heart and someone else, having a healthy sense of self centeredness, being self aware and aware of the environment and those around you can be attained by being given these opportunities by the adult or guide. 

Friday, February 26, 2016

Effectively Connecting with Students at the Heart Level

Every somewhat - experienced Montessori guide knows that there are ebbs and flows throughout the year in the classroom. Of course, we see more down hills after a long break. This is because the process of normalization gets interrupted. There are even periods where, during consistent school days, it just seems like the children are too loud or are not cooperating. They are not engaged, are socializing too much, and you feel frustrated in general. Yes there is the rule of thumb: give more lessons, observe, have one on one meetings, etc... All of these things work or work to a certain extent. They are important and must be done. However, I would like to contend that there is something more foundational than all of that. We must connect with our students at the heart level. True education cannot happen without that. When we connect with our students, we give them a key to unlock the door to connect with themselves. Then the work, the joy, begins.

I was fortunate enough to learn this early on in my start. If I do not connect with the children, I will lose them. But, I didn’t even think of it like that. I have always had a passion to connect with all my students at the heart level and see them want to connect with me too. As a guide or head of school, you cannot ask for much more, other than connecting with the parents in the same way. So, what are some exercises or techniques to help make that happen? I have thought of several things that I realized I do. It is important to remember that it can’t be acted or forced, you have to own what you are doing. They see through you and respect your vulnerability. With that said, I’d like to share a story and hopefully it lights a little spark of inspiration.

Now, let me preface this with saying that I have a reputation for being fair but tough, funny but serious when necessary. So, I realize everyone has different expectations of their classrooms and ways of running it. Also, while this post is meant for primarily elementary and adolescents, I think connecting at the heart applies to all levels. However, I am intending my story and insight to be applicable to all types and styles of guides in the classroom. So, I would like to briefly rewind to the beginning of the year and share what I did with the children. What I chose to do is not uncommon in the elementary classroom. 

Like so many other classrooms, we had started our school year with creating guidelines for the class. They came from the children. Everyone had to agree. Then everyone had to sign it. We hung it up on the wall. All of the children were excited then. 

We returned to school in January of 2016, there was also excitement in the air and the room was buzzing. Everyone was legitimately happy to be back. There were a few students still literally on vacation. Things were good, for the most part. The transition back did go pretty smoothly. However, the couple of children returned about a week later. Then we received two new students who had experience in elementary. I was noticing that there was more than a buzz in the classroom. There were too many times where I repeated myself. The class was just feeling off and I was not satisfied. 

Eventually, I noticed after redirecting and pointing out what was on the wall, it was lost and fell on deaf ears and blind eyes. I figured out, even though it originally came from the children, they were not connected to it from their heart. This led me to have a meeting with them in January. Also, I explained how something curious seems to happen with pictures and things that get hung up on the wall.

You see, after about 3 months, people just forget, they just do not notice anymore. It might as well not be there anymore. I said, “what I have noticed is that most of you are not following what you signed and agreed too.” Some children looked upset, like they disappointed me and knew it (my perception of course). I assured them that it was okay and that “when you sign something, it is like making a promise,” and they should know that for the future. In the meantime, I expressed my observations and what I found frustrating. Then I shared with them that it was on them to do better and be better. Either way, I was going to keep being me. Yet, I wanted to convey something to them and ask them some questions about one word. This is where one technique comes in.

“So, who can tell me what respect means?” Right away, hands went up and I got examples, not definitions. I knew that I had to find a word that could encapsulate what might be missing in the classroom during certain interactions. When I heard the children were not getting it, not listening, I asked someone to grab a dictionary. I had them read the definition of respect, respectful and respectfully. I tried to get them to connect to the word. Then I explained to them the power of words. I showed them what happens to the body when we think negatively with a muscle testing exercise. I turned it into a self-talk, self-respect and respect for others lessons. It was awesome! The 6-12 year olds really took to it, reminded each other and applied it for the whole week. It is now February and “respect” is still understood and utilized in the classroom more than the 10 or 15 other agreements. Now that it has been about a month, it will be time to introduce a new word. 

As you know, January and February get broken up with conferences, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and President’s Day Weekend. Yet, reminding them about respect when they made certain choices, showing them that I cared and not judging them had really brought about a deeper level of, well respect, between all of us.

To recap, connecting at the heart is the goal. The sooner this is done the better, but it cannot be rushed or forced. Helping them to connect to certain words like respect is a key to this journey with the children. Next month I will share another exercise that I have been doing and will continue to do with the children. It has to do with connecting to their individual hearts. If we do not teach children to do this, then connecting with them can only go so far! If you give the above exercise a try please feel free to comment and share with others your experience.