Work and Play and Purpose

I had the opportunity to visit a well-regarded preschool last month that is not of the Montessori variety. It was fascinating to sit on the floor amongst the moving children and settle in to observing. I had no particular expectations, and I began to run through my mental list of the characteristics of a positive environment for young children.

Was the environment aesthetically beautiful and rich with sensory explorations? Yes.

Were the group of children and staff generally peaceful and kind toward each other? Yes.

Were the adults attentive, seeming to enjoy themselves, and skilled in choosing when and how to engage with the children? Yes.

Did the children have lots of opportunity for free choice, self direction, independence? Yes.

Were children supported to use their words and problem solve to resolve conflict? Yes.

Did children put things away when they were done? Was there a place where each thing belonged, a sense of comfortable organization to the room? Yes.

Did the children seem engaged? Happy? Interested? Yes!

So what was different from Childpeace Montessori? Certainly there was a different sense of “curriculum,” of what was offered to the children to do and to think about. I couldn’t see choices available that emphasized skills and ideas about the practical needs of life, spoken and written language, math, geography, or music. Some concepts in these areas were referenced on wall posters, but not in the children’s hands or on the shelves. The activities available were all related to self expression, creativity, and movement. Nothing more.

Beyond the variety of activities offered, I slowly realized the more profound difference: a sense of purpose. At Childpeace, children are greeted with the pervasive sense that what they do matters. It’s most obvious in the variety of activities they can choose from that directly impact their community, from making food to washing dishes to polishing shoes. There are other activities that help a child clearly gain a skill, such as matching words with objects, or matching pitches. The child gets the lesson when (hopefully) the task is just a little bit too difficult to do. The child is encouraged to practice toward their sense of mastery, and the resulting sense is one of working to reach a clear goal, a clear purpose. This “work” of the children affords them dignity and competency and purpose. Even when our children choose activities of self expression, creativity, and movement, they are guided to be aware of others around them, to share their creations, and to finish up the activity by leaving the tools ready for others in their community. There is that thread of becoming aware that what you do has an impact. They internalize that what they work on makes a difference in the world -- for themselves, and for others.

The sense of purpose and love of work that we wish every teenager had, that we wish for every adult, has its roots in these early years of life. Dr. Steven Hughes, pediatric neuropsychologist, describes how “Montessori’s brain-based approach to education provides an unparalleled foundation for the development of academic, social, and executive functions critical for advanced problem solving and lifetime success.” In short form, Montessori kids are “good at doing things," he says. Childpeace is not only a positive environment for children, it offers them an unshakable sense of purpose.

Merri Baehr Whipps, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School


Building a Foundation of Trust

“What do you think?”
“I’m sure you will do the right thing.”
“Do you have any ideas?”
“How might that work?”

Building statements like the above into our repertoire is one small way that parents and teachers build partnership with children. Whether it’s rearranging the garage, working through an argument with a sibling, or figuring out when the best time of day to practice piano, the habit of soliciting children’s thoughts and ideas communicates our respect for their perspective and our trust that they are able to find creative solutions.

It can require patience, suspension of judgment, and a spirit of exploration. Often we have to stop ourselves from jumping in and offering solutions or direction. However, the doors that open can be remarkable and rewarding. Last weekend at a potluck, my daughter asked if she could have a cookie. My response was, “I think you know what my concerns might be and I trust you make a good decision.” To which she replied, “I should make sure to eat some real food first and then not have too many sweets, right?” Of course, this is a point of arrival after many family conversations about nutrition but now we can both move on; me from monitoring her choices at such gatherings and she from feeling the need to run these small decisions by me. Our trust in one another means we both have a little more freedom to enjoy the event. Had I just launched into a directive or negotiation, we would have lost this moment.

When two students argued about use of a certain material, one of my standard responses was to set it aside and send them off to create a plan with which they could both agree. During our Upper Elementary parent orientations, one piece of advice for parents of 9-12 year old children is when they bring a complaint or concern home, the parents best first question is “What did Greg/Stephanie say when you discussed it with them?” While we don’t leave the children adrift, the message comes through clearly: You have good ideas. You have the power to solve your problems. We trust you.

Trust, in this context, is the fundamental belief that we all desire to bring our best selves to each moment. This is not the same as the expectations of perfection which often lead to feelings of disappointment, mistrust and that great demoralizer, comparison. When trust is present, we see the great good in one another and all that is possible rather than looking for what is missing. The child’s idea of how to clean up spilled water may not be our idea of efficient, but they, invested in creating the solution, will likely give their best self to the effort and will likely be willing to offer help again. I’ve often seen children’s ideas about how to resolve social issues work better than the adult suggestions!

Trust allows the children to rise to their own potential and develop skills of self-management. Equipped with lessons and guidance, their confidence builds as they begin to believe in their own powers of judgment and autonomy. Creating space for collaboration and independence: this is the joyful challenge of parents and educators with the benefit that the result is that our work together is eased when all parties feel autonomous and respected, cutting out the need for willful opposition. There are plenty of educational programs and parenting approaches that script every part of the day, from morning circle to craft time to sing-along to reading hour. In this case, standardizing the experience solves many variables. Micromanagement offers an illusion of control and peacefulness, but ultimately undermines the opportunities for spontaneous, creative problem solving. Supporting independence and self-management is a messier proposition requiring friendliness with error and, sometimes more challenging, friendliness with one another’s error but leading us toward peaceful collaboration and interdependence in the work of living and learning together.

Dawn Cowan, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School

Reading and Writing in the Montessori Adolescent Environment

From Nuts and Bolts to Real-World Application
Just as in the Montessori Children’s House, the key to engaging students in reading and writing at the middle school level is to focus on the wonder of self-expression and meaningful communication. Written communication unlocks connections with people from all around the world and throughout history. It can be hard to remember this while slogging through grammar rules, so we try to get to the good stuff as soon as possible, focusing the majority of our work on practice activities and real-world applications that are as authentic as possible.

First, we keep direct instruction brief. Students receive lessons on topics like reading comprehension strategies, how to structure an effective argument, or the traits of a genre such as satire. Lessons are short and clear, giving just the information students need to apply the new skills to meaningful work, individually or in small groups. (Reading and writing are often viewed as solitary activities, but adolescents are extremely social, and in the Montessori environment they often work together.) Study of any topic culminates with a large, open-ended project created by the student in collaboration with the guide. This is where students take the material from lessons and make it their own.

Another staple of the writing process is the peer writing workshop, where students learn how to write for an audience so that their intended meaning and tone shine through. They learn to give close attention to their peers’ writing to think critically about the strengths and areas for improvement. They practice seeing writing as a process. These workshops happen throughout the year, giving students another application for the skills they’re practicing.

The culmination of the students’ work in reading and writing takes place across the curriculum. In their Humanities/Occupations projects, MMM students use reading and writing skills to interpret events and themes in social studies. Their knowledge of reading comprehension strategies helps them break down the information they receive and interpret historical texts. Their understanding of how to structure a convincing argument aids them as they write persuasive essays and participate in seminars and debates.

Earlier this year, we studied satire. The lesson began with a short explanation of satire and a close reading of an accessible example: an article from The Onion. We discussed the purpose and methods of the piece-- and, as you may have guessed if you read The Onion, we also shared a few laughs along the way. With a strengthened understanding of satire, they plunged into Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," a text which really challenges readers to distance themselves from the apparent meaning and explore the true message. As a final project, students wrote satirical pieces. Working on their own satires brought a roller coaster of excitement and frustration through the pursuit and abandonment of ideas that just might (or might not) work. Over the course of this project, students went from learning about satire to being writers of satire.

The most important work for adolescent students is to learn how to engage in society as adults. As they sharpen their reading and writing skills, they become more able to understand and define their own role and contributions to their community and larger society.

Sara Adams, Metro Montessori Middle School Guide
Childpeace Montessori School

Grades

I remember the first time I ever heard the question. It was during my first or second week of high school, and in one of my classes someone asked, “Is this going to be on the test?” I was sitting in my freshman science class and my first thought was, “Why would it matter?”

My education before high school was Montessori, where my days were a mix of lessons from my teacher, or guide, and the work I wanted to do. There were no tests, or even grades. Instead of learning a certain curriculum or set of standards, I learned about subjects that were of interest to me.

I was excited to reach high school. I was excited for homework, and most of all, I was excited for grades. At the time they seemed novel to me. But soon the glitter wore off. Grades weren't fun or exciting. They were worrying.

When I started high school I resolved that I wouldn't obsess over grades. I knew they were important for getting into college, but I figured that if I just did my best and tried to learn for the sake of learning, I wouldn't have to worry. This worked for most of freshman year. The classes were easy, and at times, brutally boring. Taking nine classes wasn't hard and most of my stress came from my participation in numerous extracurricular activities.

My school has an atmosphere of academic competitiveness. As one of the few IB schools in the city, we have a reputation for academic rigor. This has its advantages. No one is bullied for being smart, or a nerd. But that also creates a competitive culture of academic one-upmanship. I have heard conversations where my classmates attempt to outdo each other with how few hours of sleep they got the past night. Other talents, even more traditional pursuits such as sports, are undervalued. For most students, our world revolves around maintaining the perfect GPA and getting into the college of our dreams.

Slowly, I felt myself being sucked into this vortex of grades and college applications. I have one friend who, every time she decides to do something, first asks herself, “Would this look good on my college application?”

When teachers start teaching to the test and students start learning to the test, something critical is lost. One of the biggest compliments that I have received in the past two years is my ability to solve problems by thinking about solutions from different angles. When teachers teach to a test, we lose the opportunity to explore for ourselves. We teach them that there is a single correct answer and that there is only one way reach a solution. We disable the part of their minds that wonders and asks questions. I have to know how something works. I am not content with someone just telling me what to do. In Montessori, there were so many things that we could do with the information we learned.

Instead of focusing on the end goal, like a grade or a test, Montessori focuses on the work that kids do to reach the goal. I am able to solve problems in a new way because Montessori has taught me to think outside the box, and to always do my best. It didn't matter what I did as long as my teachers and I felt that I was doing my best, with the understanding that the best looks different for everyone. I believe that kids want to learn, and that given the right tools, will far surpass all expectations. Instead of setting up markers for where all students should be and implementing standardized tests that don’t measure problem solving, we need to instill a culture where challenges are valued.

I recently heard of a study where the researchers had kids from China and from the US work on a math problem. What these kids didn't know was that the problem was impossible to solve. On average the American students worked for under a minute on the problem, while the Chinese students worked for the entire hour and the experimenters had to stop them because the test was over. In the US, struggle is not something that is highly valued. Instead we value intelligence, and see struggle as an indicator that someone is stupid because school should come easily to a smart person. I have had times where I was terrified to read out loud because I was afraid people would laugh at me when I mispronounced words.

This year, one of my classes has been especially challenging for me. The teacher is known for breaking people’s perfect GPAs. But the paradox is this: he has often talked in class about how grades don’t matter and he wishes that he didn't have to give grades. But he grades so hard that all of my focus has been put on grades in his class instead of becoming a better writer. Instead of focusing on how I can improve my writing, I have shifted to thinking about how I can change my writing so that it will be what he wants and my grade will improve. Instead of creating a culture around learning, he has created a culture around grades.

Now back to that question: “Will this be on the test?” When instructors teach us that the result is the most important product of an experience, they aren't helping us. As people grow up, there isn't going to be someone telling them the bare minimum they need to do to succeed. Learning doesn't stop when children graduate from school, which is fortunate because the knowledge that we gain in high school only skims the surface of what we have the potential to learn. Teaching to the test gives students the skills that they need to succeed on a standardized test. But teaching a love of learning gives students the tools to pursue learning for the rest of their lives.

Many parents with children in Montessori worry that their kids are missing something by not getting tests. The opposite is true. By not worrying about tests or grades these children are gaining a love of learning, something that will stay with them long after their knowledge of calculus fades and they no longer remember the different parts of a cell.


Kate is a Childpeace Montessori and Metro Montessori Middle School Alumni who is currently attending Lincoln High School.  This essay won the Gold Key scholastic writing award and is now being considered at the nationals.

MMM Students Working Together on Real Problems

The family meeting (last week’s Montessori Message) along with the class meeting lay a groundwork for authentic problem solving in the real world. In those meetings, our children practice active listening, presenting issues and discussing options for a positive outcome, and understanding how we arrive at decisions. On their journey to adulthood, each of our children will encounter difficulties-problems which need to be addressed and solved in real life-outside of the context of an organized meeting. How will they fare with these?

A couple of weeks ago, MMM presented Shakespeare's Twelfth Night to a full house. This play was chosen by students through vote, and was almost entirely student-run, from costumes to blocking, etc. It was a tremendously well-received production, energizing our students in every way. The audience never knew that just days before the performance, students had butted up against significant hiccups.

On the Saturday before our Wednesday night show, we held a dress rehearsal meant to be a final run through and boost confidence before the big night. Instead, it was a tumultuous evening which exposed some real problems in our production (lines not entirely memorized, set not easy to change, run time way over two hours, and more). Within the span of a couple of hours, the students had to regroup and problem-solve these very real, imminent issues which would affect the outcome of their production. Was there stress? Yes, lots. Was there crying? A little, as a result of stress. Was there arguing? Yes. Were they frustrated? Definitely. But in the middle of it all, actors, directors, and managers were able to pull together and make some beautiful edits to the script, add a narrator (so that they could omit certain scenes to cut down on run time), and add props to help those who were struggling with their lines to have a backup while on stage. How did all of this magic happen? As an adult in the community, I chose to step back and observe their work at that point in time and here's what I saw our adolescents doing:
  1. Identifying the problem: by talking with one another, even when there was conflict involved, they were able to clearly define the problem at hand. Active listening was key in this step.
  2. Clarifying the goals: in defining the desired outcome, our students made sure they were on track to resolution.
  3. Brainstorming: this was very useful in allowing all stakeholders to feel heard and invested in the process. If a certain actor did not want to lose any lines, but the other actor in the scene did, the brainstorm revolved around how to bridge the gap between those two desires and what was best for the play.
  4. Evaluating options: once they had brainstormed options, they quickly moved to evaluating those and eliminating options that would not move them towards their goals.
  5. Making decisions: at the end of the evening and into the next school day, decisions were made and all stakeholders held to them.
Though the production that night was nearly flawless, the days leading up to that evening presented our students with exceptional opportunities to problem-solve.

As an adult at MMM, I was inspired by the process our students rolled out, which they seamlessly put into place as needed and carried out their plans to the letter. I was also inspired by the ability of our young people to collaboratively solve big, real-world problems and handle the conflict involved, navigating discomfort and using their internalized tool kit from family and class meetings to reach their goals.

It happened in a very different, more organic way than in the meetings. I could chalk it up to magic, but I know that it is all those years of practice that allows them to spontaneously solve problems in a healthy, constructive way.

Nancy Coronado, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School

The Family Meeting

Our last couple Montessori Messages have been about tools for navigating family dynamics. I knew I wanted to share about the power of family meetings, so I went to our shelf of photo albums and pulled out the blue pocket-folder we began using the year our kids were 6 and 8 years old. The four of us, mother, father, daughter and son, created a ritual of meeting weekly. We rotated the responsibilities of chairing the meeting and being secretary. We always sat at a cleared table and began with compliments for each other, then moved to problem-solving the items on the agenda. (The agenda was posted on the fridge for any of us to add items during the week, items we all needed to work on together.) We reviewed the next week’s activities as we looked at the calendar, made sure there was a fun family activity during the week ahead, and ended our time with a game or dessert.

This blue folder is now a treasure trove of memories. In the first few weeks, we grappled with how to get ready for bed in a reasonable amount of time (“Let’s try setting the timer for ten minutes, but no consequence; review next week.”), brainstorming in January about our summer vacation plans, how to respond to the (new) cat if he meowed in the middle of the night, and how to limit our water waste.

We ended up with some powerful benefits far beyond a folder of charming historical notes. It helped us carve out time to actively listen to one another. Because we were “authoritative style” parents, our children at this age understood that it was the parental job to set limits and make decisions for the family. So agenda items from the children were sometimes about changing those limits (e.g., what time to go to bed), and they could trust we would listen to their point of view. We’d all have to reach consensus on a new normal before a change was made. This certainly honed the kids’ skills of debate and persuasion, sometimes over the course of weeks. And it caused us parents to take a more objective view of our assumptions and defaults.

Other agenda items were inspired by the children's frustrations with each other, and it allowed a neutral space for everyone to share their thoughts and suggestions. (The third week, we grappled with younger brother’s habit of hitting his sister on the butt, termed “buck” by the children. Sister (secretary that week) wrote, “No one will not buck anyone without asking, and you can only ask once a day. The concequince [sic] is 3 cents for each buck.”) Some topics were a complete surprise to us, like when one child noted the need to talk about fears of the basement. And some topics were a complete surprise to the children, such as, "Papa’s going to start working outside the home full-time so how can we all pitch in more around the house?"

I don’t remember this particular conversation, but the notes say that in August, when our daughter was 9, “We discussed equality of persons and how it applies to us not buying a horse.” These kinds of topics made us parents have to think through and share our reasoning for the status quo. We opened our eyes more often to the question, “What if?”

For our children, they provided insights into family decision-making, ultimately helping them understand that something like choosing to get a horse, or deciding one’s bedtime, are not random, but are determined by careful consideration of many factors.

Our weekly meetings eventually spread to monthly meetings, and there are no notes after seven years of them. I like to think that we internalized this practice of “family meeting” and it didn’t need to be formal anymore. Perhaps this ritual sounds too formal for some families, but I wish everyone would try it for three months before deciding. At a minimum, you’ll have an entertaining set of notes to look at when you’re sitting in your empty nest a few years from now.

Merri Baehr Whipps, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School

Creating a Family Mission Statement

As parents, there can be moments when we find ourselves thinking (or saying out loud), “I never wanted it to be this way!” Whether it’s the unease of family members snapping at each other in exhaustion at day’s end or feeling unable to find connected time together as a family, we can be struck by the awareness that our lives are running us rather than the other way round.

We all have individual moments where we snap out of routine and suddenly realize we are not where we want to be and we adjust. With our family life, if we are not intentional, we risk bending to the whim of social trends rather than moving from a desired vision. Information-age parenting is overwhelming; there is no shortage of books, blogs, and classes to consult as well as the casual advice by way of family members and friends. Much of it is helpful. A lot is contradictory or impractical to the specific family circumstances. Yet we read on because we know life’s small details add up to a very important whole, as they are expressions of the values and priorities we communicate to our children.

How do we tune in through the static and know we are making decisions proactively and authentically? One possible tool is to create a family mission statement. Crafting a statement of intentionality around the most important events and relationships in our lives leaves us less vulnerable to others filling the page for us. Stephen Covey writes “A family mission statement is a combined, unified, expression from all family members of what your family is all about – what it is you really want to do and be – and principles you choose to govern your family life.”

In many ways, the process of creating a mission statement is more important than the product. The family conversations about values and principles are enlightening and really can range as far and wide as serves the individual family, from “What kinds of things do we want to do?” to “What do we want to be remembered by?” or “Try to discern a list of core values, those central principles that honestly resonate and guide your decision-making.” Elementary children are introduced to a deliberate exploration of the different values in the classroom and so a meaningful connection to discuss these at home. It’s great to write a few notes that can be revisited from time to time or posted somewhere in the house. It might even be fun to make a family motto.

Ideally, it will be a platform, a rubric used for identifying which puzzle pieces do and do not fit with the family’s mission. When we are feeling frustrated, returning to this statement may offer some insight as to why and should offer a fairly clear action item. If adventuring in the outdoors is part of the mission statement but all of the weekends seem to be consumed with commitments, then the next step is to begin blocking out days proactively. If service is a core family value, what can be planned in the next few months? If our mission is to be patient and kind to one another, we can practice new ways of speaking (and be patient with one another as these skills develop).

The end result of a family mission statement is that everyone’s enjoyment of daily life improves. Members feel that their dreams and desires are a part of the family fabric. We feel strong in our family choices, priorities, and the ability to set aside information or advice that doesn’t honor the mission. Our children benefit doubly as their voice is a part of the family mission, and they also learn to ask meaningful questions of themselves and use this self-knowledge as they become more independent from the family. By being intentional, we shield ourselves from the urge to compare our lives or our children’s paths to others’, and instead feel a sense of security, value, and appreciation for the wonderful path that is our own.

Dawn Cowan, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School