Monday, April 30, 2012

Great Gardening

Most people agree that gardening is a great experience for children, and the organic garden at our school is one of the things that parents find attractive about our campus. But did you ever wonder what exactly they learn from gardening? Well, if you did, wonder no more. The following is a list of the ways gardening can be used as part of a Montessori curriculum, blending into all areas of the classroom... or any learning environment, really. It was originally written over a year ago, as part of a grant application. Although we weren't chosen to receive the grant, it was still useful to put all of the ideas together in one place, so we can try to be consistent about applying them :) Here they are! Orange text has been changed from the original or added.

Toddler (18 months to 3 years):
Practical Life: the garden provides practical life experiences such as food preparation, planting, and harvesting. The toddlers will be able to plant and harvest low-maintenance fruits and vegetables, leading to discussions about where food comes from and how it grows. They will have first-hand experience using the food grown in the garden for simple food preparation activities, such as cucumber cutting. Practical life activities such as gardening also help to promote independence, fine motor coordination, concentration, and respect for one's environment. In addition, the garden serves an an introduction to cultivated plants and the ways that people use them, giving a glimpse of cross-cultural values.
Language: using the garden, the toddlers will learn the names of fruits and vegetables, as well as the names of the parts of the plants (root, stem, leaf, branch, petal, stamen, pistil, etc). They will learn to classify plants as flowers, vegetables, or fruits. They will also learn the terminology associated with gardening activity, such as the names of the tools used, and words that are introduced as part of the science lessons.
Science: the garden provides opportunities to briefly introduce the children to the idea of chemistry. For example, they will learn that plant matter breaks into pieces and and becomes food for new plants. They will also learn that the plant needs certain things, such as sunlight and water, in order to stay alive. The garden will also provide entomology experiences, as well as the opportunity to observe insects in their natural habitat and discuss how they help or hinder plant growth.

Primary (3-6 years):
Practical Life: the primary children will continue to learn the lessons begun in the toddler class, with greater breadth and more independence. The food preparation activities will become more complicated.
Mathematics: food preparation begins to incorporate measurements and numbers. The children may count the number of fruits on a given plant or the number of plants in the garden.
Sensorial: The garden will be associated with lessons using the five senses. Children will smell the plants and classify the scents, taste the foods and label them as sweet, salty, sour, or bitter, and play games comparing size of plants or fruits. They will also be able to touch the plants and determine texture. They may play listening games in the garden, to see if the wildlife nearby makes a noise, or if the wind rustles the leaves, and compare the sound of plucking a ripe food as opposed to an unripe one.
Language: primary children will experience a greater breadth of terminology, particularly incorporating the language from the sensorial work, as well as writing experiences such as listing the plants in the garden. Children may be given opportunities to create their own recipes using the fruits and vegetables they have harvested. Children who are able to read will be offered the opportunity to read planting directions or recipes and lead the other children.
Science: The lessons started in the toddler class become more defined, and present a clear cycle. Children are able to do plant dissections and labeling.

Elementary (6-12 years):
Practical life: food preparation becomes even more complex, using many different types of food in one recipe. Foods may be cooked, dried, or ground for later use. Gardening can be done with very little intervention. Students may have experience canning foods when the garden produces too much for immediate consumption. Elementary students may also be given daily tasks to care for and maintain the garden, such as checking moisture levels in the soil or inspecting the fence to ensure that rabbits and birds are excluded.
Mathematics and Science: children can measure the area of each planting space, and determine how many plants will fit in the area. They can also take measurements on how long a plant takes to germinate or provide fruit, or measure the size of a single fruit and see how it changes from day to day or week to week. The children can discuss in detail the biology of plants, and the inter-relations between different plants, insects, and animals. They can also measure the acidity of the soil or the fruits and vegetables, using litmus paper made from cabbage leaves, which they can harvest from garden cabbages. The children can do experiments using the garden plants as controls, then isolating different variables on class plants to see what changes.
Language and Culture: the elementary children can do research to find out which plants grow well in our climate, what some common challenges are, and what the plants need in order to be healthy. They can write about their experiences or leave notes for future classmates, to share what they have learned. Elementary children may also write songs or dramatic pieces detailing the growth or life-cycle of the garden, to share with younger students. They will learn about where each type of plant comes from, and how different cultures traditionally use them. Recipes used (at any level) will be chosen from various cultural backgrounds.

Welcome to Montessori Moments, a blog written for Dynamite Montessori School in Cave Creek, Arizona. If you'd like to check out our school, please visit Dynamite's website.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Why are there no numbers?

As the toddler teacher at Dynamite, one of the questions I answer most often is, "do you teach counting and numbers? I don't see any materials for that..." The last part of the question shows that they already know what my answer will be, but are hoping I will reply, "well, actually, we DO teach..." But we don't.
So why don't we have math materials in our class?
There are a few reasons. The first reason is that children in the toddler community are still developing an understanding of how to control their bodies, concentrate for longer periods of time, and manage frustration. These skills may not be necessary to repeat a rote memorization of counting, but they are extremely crucial to using the math materials and doing work with any level of understanding. Even when counting one-to-one (where the child matches each number with an object while counting and does so correctly) the child must be able to  keep track of each object, remembering which he has already counted and which he hasn't. If the child isn't ready and able to do that, it seems silly to teach him to repeat something he can't use and that doesn't have any meaning to him.
The second reason is that the materials we use for math are initially quite large, and then quite small. Even if we had a child in our class who was able to manipulate them effective and understand their use, there would be many others who would not. The children in the toddler class have very little, if any, ability to wait for something they want. This ability is augmented by another person already having that something, and this is usually enough to stop a toddler from taking it. Math materials would necessarily only be used by the oldest and most advanced students, leaving them available for a longer portion of the day than materials that all the children can use. This gives children who are not ready more of an opportunity to misuse them and see them being misused. We don't want their absorbent minds picking up incorrect use of the materials over a long period of time.
Finally, the third and most important reason - there is a progression of materials in the primary class environment that lead to the math area, and toddlers haven't mastered them. They don't have the control of movement or the logical sequencing to even use them.
Children first learn to use the cylinder blocks, which have elements of the later materials but are more easily manipulable by small hands. Next, they work with the pink tower. The pink tower increases incrementally in all dimensions, making it easy to discern the difference in size. The child builds the tower from largest to smallest. Children working with this material are indirectly prepared for the idea of 10, and see how three dimensions changing in unison make a more of a hyperbola than a straight line. They develop their ability to visually discriminate dimension. After working with the pink tower for a while, they are introduced to the brown stair. It is slightly more challenging than the pink tower because it changes in only two dimensions. Instead of evaluating size, the children evaluate thickness. This helps them to discriminate in more detail, and see how the shape changes when only two dimensions vary. Following the brown stair, children work with the red rods. The red rods are slightly more challenging than the brown stair because (I'm betting you've already guessed this) only one dimension changes. Now the children are evaluating length. The first rod is one decimeter in length, the second is two decimeters in length, the third is three, and so on.
In the use of every one of these materials, children are using highly mathematical concepts and evaluative skills. What I have described is merely the first lesson with each material - the barest introduction. After they've practiced with that, they take the measure of difference between each piece, they build from a distance, and match the pieces to things in the environment that are the same size/thickness/length. But these are all indirect uses of mathematics. I'm guessing you're wondering where the direct use comes into play?
Well, after the red rods, there is a material called the number rods. The shortest rod is identical to the shortest red rod, but then they start to alternate colors on each rod while remaining otherwise the same. The second rod is red-blue. The third is red-blue-red, and so on. Each rod is the physical embodiment of a number, with the units differentiated but not separate. Thus the child understand the concept of seven as a discrete quantity, while still seeing and feeling through the use of the material that it is made up of individual units. It's the perfect introduction to what a number actually means.
Why would I skip over all that beautiful preparation, that leads so perfectly into the concept of quantity, just to be able to say they know their numbers at two? Besides, they wouldn't really know them, not in the same way that a child who has followed this progression will.
The rest of the math materials follow in the same kind of logical progression so that by the time a child works with a material, he is really ready to understand it. In depth. And this deep understanding helps him be ready to understand the next material in the same way. It seems contradictory, but by not rushing things, the child is able to actually move through the concepts faster. He doesn't have to struggle to understand each one; the lessons are just challenging enough to be intriguing, and not so challenging that the child finds the work frustrating. Everything in a Montessori environment is like that. We call it "isolation of difficulty". Genius, right?
So when someone asks me why we don't do number work in the toddler class, I know they think I should. But I'm glad we have this beautiful progression, because it shows a profound respect for the child's learning process. Knowing the Montessori way, I would never do anything else.

Welcome to Montessori Moments, a blog written for Dynamite Montessori School in Cave Creek, Arizona. If you'd like to check out our school, please visit Dynamite's website.

Monday, April 9, 2012

On So-Called Early Reading...

I just finished reading this article citing research opposed to early reading. Most of the following post I first wrote in the comments section of that article, but I felt that this topic was incredibly important for people to understand fully and wanted to share my thoughts here.  Let me start by saying that I fully agree there is a problem with the way most children learn to read and write. Several problems, in fact. But we'll stick with the problem posited in the original post - early reading (as taught by most educational institutions) doesn't add anything to a child's academic skills or knowledge down the road. In fact, children who attended "play based" preschools fared much better in several areas than those who attended preschools that focused on academic skills. The research is quite clear on that verdict, Jennifer wrote, and it's true - but I've never found any research that differentiated between children by the way they learned to read or their motivation for doing so. Since the vast majority of people are educated in traditional schools, whether public or private, I think it's logical to say that the research is lacking. I would even venture to say that the way most children are taught reduces their interest in doing what they are taught to do. This really isn't a new idea, in fact, Alfie Kohn wrote a whole book about it and Montessori touched on it in a few of hers over fifty years ago.

The problem actually isn’t “early” reading, it’s the way traditional schools teach reading. When Maria Montessori developed the first Montessori schools, all she had available for the children was a set of sandpaper letters, believing that to go any farther was inappropriate for the children with whom she worked. They were ages 3-6. The children worked with the sandpaper letters and then, when they were drawing with chalk, started to write the letters they knew without any prompting from an adult. Then one child (around age 4) started to write words and prompted an “explosion into writing” for other children. Soon most of the class was writing on everything they could get their hands on – Montessori even wrote about children writing on the crusts of their bread! And then, about six months later, the second magic moment happened. One of the children realized that he (or she) could read the words he (or she) had written. This became an “explosion into reading” similar to the previous explosion into writing. All of it happened (in many different environments, with many different classes, over many years) without reading or writing being taught at all. All the teachers did was introduce a knowledge of phonetics and show the correct way to form the letters (which allowed the child to form a proper muscle memory of the letter shapes). They only did this with children who were interested in having those lessons. Most, if not all, of the parents were illiterate and couldn't teach either reading or writing. The children had these epiphanies because of their own interest in writing and reading!

Today we have materials that help a child progress farther into reading and writing, because Montessori discovered through these explosions that these activities are age appropriate for primary children. The philosophy remains the same, though, since everything Montessori advocated was based on observation of the child.

So yes, I agree that adults shouldn’t push reading on children, but not because it’s not age-appropriate. We shouldn’t push ANY kind of learning (with the exception of those few things needed for safety’s sake) for the simple reason that we only truly learn when we are intrinsically motivated. If we let them follow their inner teacher and simply connect them with safe opportunities to discover things, they will move farther along the educational path than any traditionally educated child will. There will be no divide between work and play because their work is joyful and pleasurable to them when they are allowed to follow their instincts. "Work" only becomes a dirty word when the task doesn't meet the worker's needs, but rather the needs or wants of an external source.

Of course I'm not suggesting anyone should let children run wild. Children need boundaries for physical and emotional safety, and their freedom cannot be broader than what their emotional and intellectual maturity allows then to manage effectively. But too often people assume that children need adults to fill the imaginary blank slate in their brains, and nothing could be further from the truth.

Welcome to Montessori Moments, a blog written for Dynamite Montessori School in Cave Creek, Arizona. If you'd like to check out our school, please visit Dynamite's website.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Pattern 3 Part Cards

I've created a new set of pattern three part cards to share with you all, using (with permission) patterns found here. Thanks, Sawdust and Embryos!
To make these cards, first print two copies at 4 sheets per page. The original images were quite small because they were part of a collage, so you definitely don't want to print them full size! Six per page would probably work, but the cutting instructions below won't be accurate. I wouldn't go smaller than that, just for ease of handling.
Next, cut the page in half both ways - you should end up with four pages (from each sheet) that are 4.25 x 5.5. Trim the tops off so that the top margin is .5 in. Do this for all the pages of both sets.
Now put aside one copy of each card - these are the control cards. On the other set, cut between the pattern and the label, making sure to cut in the same spot on each card so they stack nicely. They can be finished at this point, but for best wear, laminate using at least 3 mil plastic sheets.

Welcome to Montessori Moments, a blog written for Dynamite Montessori School in Cave Creek, Arizona. If you'd like to check out our school, please visit Dynamite's website.