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Our thoughts on Montessori and education

Help! I didn’t do that in my training!

“Dear Ask a Montessorian, I’ve been teaching for five years with roughly the same staff.  Next year, two new leads and one new assistant will join our staff, and they are trained at institutes that are quite different than mine.  We’ve already had a few conversations that start with, ‘in my training, we don’t…’ and I’m worried that we’ll have more differences than likenesses when the school year begins.  What do you recommend to not confuse fellow staff, students and parents this year?”

 

I recall in my early years as a Montessori teacher how I was confused and stressed about how teachers from different training institutes implemented Montessori in the classroom. I would compare our practices, constantly looking for answers. I often asked myself, ‘are they right, or am I?… Is my training superior or inferior to theirs?” I used to review my Montessori albums and ask others from my training about this, seeking clarity and affirmation that I was ‘doing it right.’ Gradually, though, I began to understand how to adjust my thinking and avoid being judgmental. I learned to explain and demonstrate practices as I understood them, and I became more willing to ask about the rationale of others.

I have had the opportunity to work in many different countries, and with teachers who have been trained from various training centers. Fostering a Montessori approach in the classroom takes a lot of practice, no matter the country nor the training institute. I have observed even how the Montessori approach is adopted to suit the culture and religious beliefs of the students based on their country and region. All of the Guides I’ve worked with have been well versed in Montessori philosophy, despite differences in training.

It’s important to discuss with co-teachers and colleagues the differences you observe, not to point out differences, but to seek clarification and understanding of their rationale. Share ideas and collaborate with colleagues to improve and enrich the environment and your students’ experience. We as teachers are there to foster excitement, curiosity and the child’s love for education. Being flexible and open to doing things differently in certain circumstances, you will find, will be necessary. I once took over a Children’s House class and most of the children were in their second and third year. The previous teacher had a very different training than mine, and as you might imagine, the children were accustomed to her methods and routines.  If I had immediately imposed lessons in ‘my way,’ the children would have been quite confused. I had discussed this with the outgoing teacher and learned about her philosophy, practice and routines. I liked some (and frankly disliked most) but I had to be flexible for the benefit of the children and their expectations. I had to take small steps, slowly and gradually introducing change with as little disruption to the children as possible.

As Montessori teachers, our goal is to provide a peaceful learning environment. We take much time and effort to prepare the environment for learning. With this in mind, isn’t it an advantage to get ideas from other Montessori teachers?  We follow the same philosophy and have the same goals, but may take different paths in presenting and sequencing lessons and choosing various programs. For example, one school or training may  present cursive first and another, manuscript.  One might utilize a different language program than another. This doesn’t mean that if you only have experience in one that you cannot understand, adapt to, or even adopt, another.

Create a co-teaching relationship with colleagues. Embrace new ideas and intentionally incorporate them in your classroom. Be open to look and listen. Find a balance that suits your classroom. Use observation, inquiry and different techniques to help children who might benefit from it.  In this way, be truthful to Montessori while following the core principles. I even invite teachers from other classrooms who have different training to come and give a presentation to my class. This way even children understand that the same concept or activity can be done in more than one way.

Welcome new staff members and share and learn from each other. If changes have to be made, make them gradually, so that children are able to adjust and there is little burden on parents and other staff. Be excited to have new staff that will bring with them their own training and new ideas.

In my experience of working with these differences, I have gained immense satisfaction and knowledge throughout the years. I have become more confident to work in any Montessori setting. I have learned to accept changes and to be able to use variations that suit the children I work with. In fact, I get very curious and excited to see things done differently. My passion for teaching and Montessori has taken new horizons with this new outlook. There have been times I have tried giving a certain lesson to a child several times with no success. I have watched my colleagues do the same lesson a bit differently, this time with success.  It didn’t matter who’s training was ‘superior’ in that moment– all that mattered was that I was following Montessori principles and that the child learned the lesson, rendering him more independent than before.

My advice is to show respect and seek to understand when things are done differently. Don’t let little differences stand in the way of the growth of the children, the school and yourself. We are the instruments that help mold the formative years of life of the children we work with. Let’s make it a happy and peaceful environment for them to grow and flourish.

Shyamini Monaco is AMI certified with over 20 years of experience in Montessori education. She has taught in Dubai, UAE and Milan, Italy prior to moving to the United States. Shayamini currently serves as Children’s House Lead Guide at Renaissance Montessori in North Carolina.

My child wants to try veganism. What do you recommend?

‘Dear Ask a Montessorian, my Lower Elementary child recently shared that she wants to be a vegan like she’s seen her uncle and aunt doing.  I’m worried about her getting enough nutrition.  What would you recommend?‘ 

I share your concern regarding your daughter’s interest in becoming a vegan and meeting her daily nutritional requirements. It is always a concern with “non-vegan” children as well! Essential nutrients contained in animal meat and by-products and fish are critical to development – some essential -meaning they must be eaten on a daily basis because the body cannot manufacture them from other nutrients. An example would be docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a structural Omega-3 fatty acid found in fish.  This structural fat integrates into the cell membrane and myelin for cell signaling and activating the action potential between 2 neurons. This highly unsaturated fatty acid also builds a fluid, flexible, permeable cell membrane for optimal absorption of nutrients – and the ability for the cell to move about the body freely. So, it’s good for all body systems throughout life including vascular, metabolic, and reproductive.

Because of the requirement of DHA in brain development and function many vegans do take fish oil supplements. If not, I recommend algal oil which contains DHA. This is sourced from algae – what the fish eat to obtain their DHA.

If there are any dietary restrictions and preferences, feeding every human cell in the human body must be well-informed and intentional – whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, or eat everything. The cell membrane, mitochondria (energy center), and nucleus (DNA – requiring protection for healthy replication) need specific nutrients for optimal health and functioning.

To add to the complexity of nutritional adequacy, even if we eat specific foods containing nutrients needed for physiological processes, they will require co-factors from other foods to metabolize. Zinc is the major co-factor in fatty-acid metabolism. I recommend pumpkin seeds every day for my patients because they are rich source of zinc and manganese which are trace minerals many of us are lacking.

And then of course, there’s the issues of iron and B12 for vegans.

The bottom line is we can express our concerns to our vegan-interested child, talk about nutritional needs being met and make an appointment with a knowledgeable nutritionist- or simply set a boundary should you want to postpone this decision until your child is older. If becoming vegan is a passing fad, a cool thing to do, or just curiosity – it’s vital to educate yourself and your child about the importance of composition of foods throughout the day to meet nutritional requirements for physical and mental health. This is a conversation of paramount importance for all families.

I’ve often said that “people who love children change the world by teaching them how to eat.”

 

Jan Katzen AMI, CFP, CN is a former pre-primary Montessori educator. She is now a nutritional therapist working with developmental pediatricians in Phoenix, Arizona. Jan is a certified nutritional educator and instructs Nutrition for Learning Intensive, a 4-week professional development course offered by CGMS.

Jan’s newly released children’s eBook, Humdrum Hannah was Eating Junk, contains an audio book, coloring book, recipes and a story that will entertain and teach children (and adults) about nutrition basics.

Help! I need ideas for handwriting practice in class.

Dear Ask a Montessorian, help!  I would love ideas on handwriting lessons with kindergartners. Right now we have small groups. I write words on a dry erase board and they write them on lined paper, but what other ways can they practice?

Thank you for your question.  There are many creative and engaging ways that Kindergartners can practice refining their handwriting in the Montessori classroom.  Below are some ideas that I have enjoyed as a teacher, and you may want to try with your students.

Shelf Work:  In my classroom, the Kindergartners have tended to choose shelf writing work daily. They choose their age for the number of ‘writing sheets’ they do per day. Students can choose between patterns, numbers, letters, words, rhyming, songs and sight word work. They can also do a greeting card as their last writing work. There is often a group of them sitting at the writing table. This table seats 6 to 8 children. In a classroom of 24 students, the table is often full of both kindergartners and four-year-olds in their sensitive period for writing. Teachers can guide students that need help.

Writing Journal:  Once the writing sheets have been finished, students place them in their writing journal. Black composition books are used for this purpose. Students write their name on the front. Teachers are often surprised to see how they spontaneously want to and can write their names. I encouraged them to use the first page for a self portrait. The next pages are for writing sheets to be taped in once they are finished. This book then serves as a historical record of the child’s work. It stays at school throughout the school year.

Writing Process:  Keep in mind that in general, Kindergartners like to write. They like to do shelf writing work and have ‘writing meetings.’ Some will have mastered  formation skills and spacing. Some will still be working on formation. The materials on the shelf include labeled, sequenced writing baskets. Students choose their own work and work at their own pace. Teachers can guide them in making a choice and give lessons as needed. Students like to  trace patterns, numbers, letters and words just as much as they liked tracing the sandpaper letters. First they trace and then they copy. This is the step we as Guides often leave out. Giving students the ability to copy is an integral part of the writing process. This is what teachers do when they have meetings where students copy what is written on a whiteboard or chalkboard. If the student does not have the skills to copy the word yet, the teacher can write in in pencil or a yellow marker and have the students trace it. We want students to be successful, so scaffolding in this way is appropriate.

Picture Story Meetings:  Kindergartners look forward to group writing lessons.  They like the repetition of knowing that they will have a meeting every week on the same day and at the same time. If they are full-day students, it is easy to fit in two special writing meetings a week. I have always done one meeting on Tuesdays that we call Picture Story Day. This 10 to 20-minute meeting focuses entirely on learning how to write a story. At the beginning of the year, we write the title of a story and draw an accompanying picture. We learn to sign our name as the author and illustrator. We begin writing sentences – one at first and then two or three. Sometimes the teacher directs what the story will be about. If we are working with Africa in the geography area, for example, it could be a story about Africa. Sometimes students draw a picture first and then write their story. Sometimes they do the story first and write the story next.

Star Picture Story Example: The students arrive at the meeting with their writing journals and one marker. We sit at the table and take a moment to center our attention. We shut our eyes and take 3 deep breaths. I guide them to the work: ‘Today we will write a story about the stars. See stars all around you. Are they bright? Who is you with? Where are you? Now when you are ready open your eyes. Let’s write the title for the story. If you need me to write the words for you I will, and you can trace over them.’  Once they have all written their title, we move on to the body of the story by composing sentences. I can help and advise those that need it. I found that some students like to tell me what they want to write before writing it.

Dictation Meetings: Every week we would have a dictation meeting. Students bring their book and a marker. We center for a moment. I remind them that they write what they hear me say. I call off numbers, letters or words for them to write. As the year progresses, they become focused on listening and responding with ease. This becomes a favorite activity to look forward to.

I hope you will try some of these ideas in your classroom because you will see how the culture of writing begins to be the norm, and how the students’ refinement improves over the school year. Students like to practice writing with appealing, ever-present materials. A writing shelf with sequenced writing sheets allow students an opportunity to fine tune their skills.  Writing meetings are essential in empowering kindergarten students to grow and learn together. They are an effective way for teachers to guide students. Students in meetings guide one another with suggestions and ideas. They become a community!

Susan Scheibenzuber holds her Associates in Early Childhood and an Early Childhood Montessori certificate.  She is a retired teacher and now promotes handwriting skills and Beautiful Handwriting materials in her national presentations and at her website, www.LaughingStarMontessori.com

Help! My child seems to be addicted to junk food.

My six-year-old daughter is addicted to sugar. From morning to night all she wants is junk food and sugary snacks. I find protein bar wrappers stuffed under her mattress. Help!! 

This is the cry of many families these days – sugar, sugar, sugar. To quote Robert Lustig, author, pediatric endocrinologist, and Sugar, the Bitter Truth guru, “We’re eating and drinking dessert all day and night long.”

This is probably true, however, in my experience as a former Montessori directress and practicing nutritional therapist (and to paraphrase a popular tune):  ‘It’s all about the macros, ‘bout the macros, not sugar.’

As soon as I hear that a child’s cravings for sugar is negatively impacting their lifestyle: academically, behaviorally, emotionally or physically, I ask the parents to think of these extreme cravings as an SOS call from every cell in their child’s brain and body, ”I’m starving and I need energy and nourishment now!”

Simple carbohydrates like sugary boxed cereals, muffins, protein bars along with anything white (which indicates that they are stripped of vital nutrients) provide quick and short-lived energy that quickly drains the brain alerting the body’s fight or flight system which is counter-productive to learning – leaving the think tank, muscles, tissue, and all body cells depleted and hungry or “hangry” which is a common description I hear from many parents.

Most of us know this but through mindful meal planning we can help alleviate the sugar cravings.

We begin with balancing and timing of macronutrients throughout the day.                                   

  • Protein contains amino acids that build the body and chemical messengers in the brain for focus, learning, memory, sense of well-being, calmness, impulse control and sleep.
  • Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest so energy levels are sustained to increase physical stamina and brain power. (bonus – sugar cravings diminish).
  • Fats from animal, fish, and plant sources help to regulate the brain so there is a good balance between arousal and calm. Fats and complex carbs promote good digestion and heart health.

Bonus for all sugar aficionados.  You can have your cake and eat it too! A cookie, piece of candy or ice cream will ‘hitch a ride’ as an “accessory” to the macros digesting throughout the day without impacting blood sugar levels negatively once macronutrients from minimally processed sources are balanced to meet an individual’s unique metabolism.

When I was teaching decades ago, I noticed that many students started their day with good cheer and great focus while others struggled from the minute they entered the school yard. Some even sat down on the steps of our Casa Dei Bambini finishing their bags of sugary cereal or muffins (of often adult portions). I learned quickly that if I provided eating foods rich in macronutrients from the beginning of the school day until the end, even the hardened sugar addicts were able to focus and learn. These food opportunities were available to the children starting with a mini-meal they prepared before class and individual food preparation works with the option of inviting a friend.  I videotaped the children assembling, serving, and working with food preparation activities my last few months of teaching. I  held the camera and truly captured the essence of how a community of master chef, well-fed toddlers not only broke bread together (Ezekiel, of course!) but engaged in classroom works attached to the joy and sense of accomplishment.

It is my greatest joy to share these techniques, show how to integrate them in a classroom and home setting, and provide evidence-based nutritional science and education to parents, educators, school administrators and on-site school chefs and meal planners. I cover a lot of ground in my upcoming 4-week nutritional intensive course Nutrition for Learning, Health, and Well-Being. Together we follow Dr. Montessori’s directive to develop within ourselves “the habit of specializing in children’s food.”  The next course begins June 17th.

Jan Katzen AMI, CFP, CN is a former pre-primary Montessori educator. She is now a nutritional therapist working with developmental pediatricians and mental health professionals in Phoenix, Arizona. Jan is a nutritional educator and video presenter in the CGMS Infant/toddler certification course. To learn more about Jan including her books and recently released children’s eBook, “Humdrum Hannah was Eating Junk” visit her website  www.nutritionforlearning.com

Help! How do we help Elementary students with no Montessori background?

Dear Ask a Montessorian, soon a student will switch from their public school to grade 5 at our Montessori school. How realistic is it to make the transition academically viable? I’m Early Childhood trained and know that hands on experience with the materials is very important in the early years.  Are these materials still required as a foundation in Upper Elementary? What would you recommend that we do to help a new student entering a Montessori class for the first time?  

Dear Upper EL Guide, when I was teaching in an Upper Elementary classroom, we had many students over the years join our class from other schools, mostly traditional, without any Montessori experience. The transition can be bumpy, but there are things that you can put in place to help the child flourish.

In terms of your question about the materials and experiences in the Casa classroom that the child missed, you want to meet the child where they are. This means taking their age into account. I would tend to say that you will not bring in materials from the Casa room for the child to use. You will want to observe and see where the gaps are and present opportunities for the child to gain those skills in a way that matches their developmental level. For instance, you wouldn’t have the child practice a spooning exercise, but you will provide cooking or mealtime experiences for the child to develop the same skills. It is important for the guide to learn about the interests and skills of the child and work to build on those skills to facilitate the building of confidence and comfort in the classroom.

In addition, you will want to meet with the parents and get a clear idea of why the child is moving into your classroom at this time. In turn you will provide parents with as much information as you can about how you will approach both social and academic work. Then you will want to assess the child’s academic standing. You will need to plan for many one on one lessons at the beginning of their transition. For example, they may already know how to do long multi-digit multiplication with pencil and paper, but you will want to show them how to do it on the checkerboard and get them comfortable with using the materials. This is where I have seen the most resistance, but over time it becomes easier and they see that all of the other children are using materials for learning and working, too.

Planning some community building activities for the whole class at the time of the transition is very helpful in bringing the child into the fold and culture of the classroom. It is helpful to talk about what the class as a whole can do to create a welcoming environment for the new student. Preparing the current children for the addition to the community is a necessary component of this process.

I believe that it is important to always be working on building a culture of inclusivity in the classroom. Having grace and courtesy processes in place for welcoming visiting and incoming children and adults is important work that Montessori Guides need to see as a priority in their classroom. These processes take time, thought and effort on everyone’s part. The effort is well worth the positive outcome. Creating this foundation of inclusivity is what will allow the new child to be able to try new things, and be open to getting to know the other children. When a strong culture of kindness, hard work and fun is in place you have a high probability of the new child coming into your classroom transitioning in a positive manner.

You have many skills already that will help guide you in these types of transitions. Observing, planning and connecting are the hallmarks of our approach. Just the fact that you asked this question shows that you are a caring and thoughtful Montessorian!

–Stephanie Pullman, Elementary Level Associate Director at The Center for Guided Montessori Studies

Stephanie Pullman has taught at the Toddler,  Lower Elementary, and Upper Elementary levels in her career.  She has served as a teacher trainer for five years at MWTTP, and currently serves as an adjunct instructor of Child Development at Cerritos College, Cerritos, CA.  Stephanie holds a Master’s Degree in Education with a Montessori Emphasis from St. Catherine’s University and received her AMI 6-12 Montessori credential in 1993.

Located in Long Beach, California, she enjoys visiting museums, movies, yoga, and reading.  In addition to her role as a CGMS Elementary Level Associate Director, Stephanie has served CGMS adult learners as an online instructor, residential session instructor, field consultant, and practicum advisor.