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

A Case for Movement

I got a little nervous hearing the news last night about how sitting too long each day contributes to the risk of heart attacks.  I had a conversation with myself about how much my expanding administrative duties keep me in my seat, and despite considering myself physically active (for my age) I began to plot my daily escapes from my office.  

And yesterday I read a Washington Post article titled, “Letting Kids Move in Class Isn’t a Break from Learning. It IS Learning.”  A quote from Aleta Margulis, who runs a DC nonprofit called the Center for Inspired Teaching. 

“So how do you teach teachers to take this next step in building their practice? The answer lies in ensuring professional development engages teachers the way we expect them to engage their students — physically as well as intellectually. By taking teachers completely out of the typical training model, which requires them only to stare passively at PowerPoint slides, my colleagues and I ask teachers to tap into new ways of problem solving, community building, and communicating with those around them."
It seems sad that we are having to teach teachers to allow children to move.  And I know you are going to guess my reaction to that, “Montessori programs have been doing that for 120 Years!!!”

How lucky are we that Montessori schools and classrooms start with designs based on the need for movement and collaboration?  I looked around again today and saw at least five examples-in a snapshot of a child’s day-of how Montessori thinking is imbedded with the notion that to move is to live and thrive! We don’t even think about it because it is such an essential part of the way we educate.   Here are a few of the things I saw:

  1. Toddlers, on their daily trek from their classroom to the kitchen, passed my window.  In training pants and colorful tops, they pushed their little cart full of dirty dishes and composted food, jumping and skipping along the way.  I followed and watched as Devin and Albert greeted them with a smile in the kitchen.  
  2. I listened to a Lower Elementary student’s piano practice at 11:00 in the morning.  This student had finished a project, took the room pass, walked to Elementary Aftercare, and headed to the piano.  No questions asked.
  3. Earlier this morning I saw a parent in the office with a group of elementary students.  One of the students was writing their destination and travel plans on the office white board.  In this instance it was a 6th year service project trip to the Book Bank where the students would be doing book repair.  Out of class, moving, active, learning, and contributing.
  4. I walked by the Children’s House classes and noticed two students who were engaged in what looked like charades. I stopped and asked them what work they were doing.  Command Cards was their answer.  They had small red cards and a large red circle (the grammar symbol for action) and they were reading the words and acting out the phrases “Jump in place," “clap 5 times," and “run in a circle."  Verb commands are not sedentary.  
  5. At MMM three students were working in the shop making wine bottle holders.  As part of their microeconomy, the students learn practical skills for making and selling products with a goal of earning a profit.  Hands on, practical, purposeful. 
Does this make you wonder how constrained or free to move your child feels each day?  How many hours are spent in the car or sitting in front of a screen?  Now is the time to set lifetime habits that will support our children’s health as they move into adulthood.

Our students do not have assigned seats; they work at a table or floor or sometimes standing up.  They move freely through the rooms making choices, completing projects, and hopefully using up a lot of energy.  Movement is not just a component of Montessori education, it is the foundation.

Sue Pritzker, Head of School
Childpeace Montessori School

Quality Early Education

This week, on December 10th, the White House hosted a Summit on Early Education. President Obama committed $750 million to be invested in the funding of education for birth through age five. Our Childpeace Head of School, Sue Pritzker, is on the national Montessori Leaders Collaborative “0-6 Initiative” committee that expects funding for the development of Montessori community centers that serve the whole family in high risk communities. The Trust for Learning fund represented the MLC at the White House Summit and has committed $15 million specifically to implement quality Montessori into public sector schools and for support of Montessori teacher training. The total of philanthropic commitments to early education funding from the attendees of the Summit is $330 million. These are exciting times, nationally, in the world of early education!

Our growing understanding of brain development alone is a forceful mandate for tending to the education of our youngest. An individual’s brain construction project takes about 20 years to get all the basics in place, but those first five years are the physical foundation upon which everything else is built. For example, even by 24 months old the differences in a child’s amount of vocabulary is directly tied to the verbal environment that the child has experienced.

Economics is also a forceful mandate, with numerous studies showing that about $7 is saved for each $1 spent on early childhood education. As our federal and state governments move to invest in our future in this way, defining “high-quality” early childhood education has become a major focus. Obviously, there is a mix of opinions. Montessori educators have a rich history, wealth of anecdotes, and a growing pool of educational and neuropsych studies that support the principles of our practice. We know in our bones that the quality of the adults, the beauty, peace, and order of the environment, the mixed aged community, the child’s ability to be independent in their work cycle, are all elements of a quality early education environment. Yet it feels like moving a mountain when we work to bring these principles to the established bureaucracy of the conventional school system and agree upon their definition.

The Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) has been established during the last couple of years in Oregon (along with 40 other states). Childpeace has taken steps to be a part of this conversation of defining “quality” in Oregon by creating a QRIS Portfolio that documents our practice in great detail. We are in the midst of having it reviewed; observers have come to “rate” us and more will come in the future. It is fascinating to see the state standards for quality take shape. We have created statements of practice (e.g. about appropriate screen time, nutrition, and mixed-age groups) to help shape the conversation. Some colleagues have worked to articulate the Montessori teacher-training so that it is understood when the state quantifies the education level of our guides.

Investing in early childhood can take many forms. You yourself have given up a major chunk of income to stay home with your child and/or to have your child with excellent educators. It is a noble work to extend outside of our own homes to the neighborhood and society around us and invest in this fundamental tool for transforming our society. I am pleased that this is now a bigger part of our national conversation.

Merri Baehr Whipps, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School

Mindset in Montessori

If you are a person who seeks out the occasional online article, book, or radio talk about cutting-edge aspects of education or psychology, you’ve likely stumbled across Carol Dweck’s research about motivation. Her book, Mindset, explores why people succeed and how to foster success (i.e. making the most of one’s potential). This topic gets at precisely why many of us have chosen Montessori education for our children: to help them access the best of their individuality and potential, to be a positive community member and, ultimately, to be another big drop in the bucket of future world peace. So Dweck’s research is of great interest to Montessori guides and parents as we create environments to nurture this success. Dweck’s application of her findings, her “what does this mean for me," fits perfectly with practices we’ve had in Montessori classrooms for a century:
  • We offer the children tasks that are just a little beyond their current ability level, then expect them to practice, practice, practice to reach mastery.
  • We view mistakes and failed experiments as opportunities for growth. Rather than criticize our children at those moments, we focus on what is learned from the fail and move toward another attempt.
  • We don’t praise the child (you are beautiful/smart/talented), we praise the effort (you worked hard, you took great care).
  • We talk specifics with children (when you cleaned up your lunch there wasn’t a single crumb left) rather than generalities (you were awesome at clean up) and sprinkle on gratitude when appropriate (I really appreciate this clean work space).
  • We encourage children to seek out help from peers in the community, to get friendly with finding ways to tackle their challenges instead of hiding them.
  • With our older students, we share directly about growth mindset vs. fixed mindset and discuss how to nurture one’s own growth mindset.
  • We help scaffold the child’s perseverance: offering tasks with ever-increasing steps from beginning to end, and supporting the child to finish a task she’s started even when the going gets tough.
  • When a child complains about a difficult task or difficult social situation, we empathize but we don’t fix it for them. We draw out their ideas for what they could try next as they problem-solve and develop their skills.
  • We allow the children to see us in moments of difficulty and imperfection, modeling a growth mindset. "I'm trying to repair this drying rack, but so far I'm unsuccessful. I feel frustrated and disappointed so I'll take a break and then try again with a new idea. Maybe I'll ask a friend for advice."
  • We nurture a voracious appetite for learning and doing what you love rather than an external stamp of approval.
With parent-teacher conferences beginning next week, one possible topic to discuss is how your children are doing with their growth mindset. Are they self-choosing activities that stretch their abilities? Are they comfortable asking for help? Are they comfortable persevering, without asking for help, through trial and error? Are they self-satisfied with their completed work without seeking praise? If any of these things are not in place, it’s the collaborative work of the adults and the child to shift the paradigm -- by practicing responses and activities that nurture a growth mindset. It’s worth it because, as Dweck writes, “The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.” It makes success, in the best sense of the word, a possibility.

Merri Baehr Whipps, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School