Wednesday, July 17, 2019

That's so Montessori: Preparing your house the Montessori way

That's so Montessori: Preparing your house the Montessori Way
As a Montessori trained teacher, I notice things that are "so Montessori" in my every day environment. 

I was a Montessori parent even before I knew what that meant. I'll break down what that looks like in detail in later posts, but for today, I'll give you a little overview of what it means to bring Montessori into your house.

You'll find that it's likely not much different than what you are doing now. The difference is intentionality when setting up a Montessori environment at home. After all, the primary principles of Montessori theory are "follow the child" and "the prepared environment." 

Seems simple enough, right?

The conscious component of creating a Montessori environment at home is about making sure you are providing real life opportunities for your children to practice specific skills. For example, if your child is interested in learning how to use tools, your first thought might be to go and buy a plastic toy tool set or a child-specific set of tools. In Montessori, you skip this and jump right to the real thing -- real nails, a real hammer, and real wood. You show your child how to safely use the tools (sometimes reinforcing safety over and over), and then you give them space to practice. When the activity is over, you don't tuck the materials and tools away in some out of reach place, but rather, you make them available and you ensure that your child -- who know knows how to safely use the tools and materials -- can hammer something in the future.

Another way to look at this concept is to think about learning to cook spaghetti. You don't get out a plastic pot and plastic food to do so. While toy food and toy pots and pans (we have a toy kitchen in our house!) can be fun, they aren't really preparing your children for the real life tasks of actually cooking food. You may be worried about your child burning or cutting themselves or totally screwing up in some way, but in reality, you are teaching them the skills to avoid such problems. Once you've shown them how to safely and properly use their tools (a knife, a stove or oven, etc), you can monitor their progress and help them practice their new skills. 

Sometimes, you have to rein in the chaos and start over when showing your children a new skill.

Sometimes, you have to abort the lesson or plans and say, "We'll try again another day." 

But, you never fully take the reigns completely and take over the task as your own.

You don't learn math by someone else calculating every problem for you, and the same is true of most lessons your children should and will learn. So, how will your kids learn life skills if they aren't allowed to try and allowed to occasionally fail? 

I understand that teaching many life skills can be time consuming and messy, and we can often easily do these tasks faster and much more efficiently ourselves. But, that's not the point. The point is teaching your children the skills they need to be successful in life. In Montessori theory, this is called "Practical Life".

I've allowed my own children to use real knives since they were old enough to sit at the kitchen table with us. Neither thinks of knives as toys or weapons as a result because they've been taught to use them properly and know exactly the purpose of these tools. In fact, today, my son said that he was hungry and got up and made his own quesadilla on the stove. All I had to do was check on him and make sure he had the stove at the right setting, but otherwise I was totally hands off. 

This was my son's rodeo, not mine.

I used to be afraid that my son would burn himself on the stove, but I have also taught him well and I know he is also smart enough to know when a pan is hot and to not put his hand on it. Does that mean we've been totally without little incidents here and there? No, of course not, because these are skills learned through trial and error. 

I'm not a free range parent by any means, but I am also a realist and want my children to be able to learn and grow and to be able to things independently.
If you aren't comfortable with your kids using a stove, never fear! You can still prepare areas of your kitchen where your kids can prepare food for themselves using real kitchen tools and materials. For example, peanut butter (or other "butter") and jelly sandwiches are great starter items! Make sure the ingredients are all in close proximity to one another and within reach of your children and then let them go for it (after you've shown them or guided them through the steps, of course!). 

Really, these principles can be applied to any task anywhere in your house. The keys are to make sure the tools and materials necessary are in reach, preferably grouped together, and that you've given your kids some basic instruction in safely handling the items and completing the tasks at hand.

I have also shown my children how to start the bathtub, where to find towels, and what the bathroom should look like after their baths are done. Now, when they are ready for a bath, I can say, "OK! You know what to do!" I still help wash hair and to pour in fancy bubbles and so on, but overall, they know what to do for themselves! 

Of course, it is important to make sure tasks are age and maturity level appropriate. For example, while her older brother is able to handle the stove, I would not let my six year old daughter make her own quesadilla. That said, she's much better at putting together a snack tray than her brother. He's too timid to take bigger risks, but my daughter will gladly wield a hammer or a saw by herself and go at a construction project!

You know your child best and what they are capable of. 

So, you see none of this is really rocket science, but rather common sense and knowing your children's abilities and maturity levels. And, it's about intentionally providing opportunities and materials for your children to learn to do tasks for themselves.

I'll break down how to set up your house room-by-room with Montessori principles in later posts and also share some my favorite Practical Life jobs that I utilize in my classroom and home year round. 

For now though, I challenge you to set up at least one task that your child can do completely on their own. It could be a small cooking job, laundry, watering the plants, or anything else that fits or that they seem interested in. 

Leave a comment and let us know what tasks your kids do at home and how you support them in growing and learning independently!





Saturday, June 29, 2019

End of the Year Wrap Up: A Teacher's Perspective

End of the Year Wrap Up: A Teacher's Perspective
As I write this, we have 8 days of school left in our year (although it'll be summer break by the time you read this).

We began our year by counting the days we've been in session, and it's somehow morphed over to the ultimate countdown to summer. I look at this dwindling number with both excitement and pangs of sadness. My time with these little students--my charges for the school year--is almost up.

Since I teach at a Montessori school, there is a high probability that over half of my class will return to my care next year, but the 3rd graders will not. They'll be moving on to the world of Upper Elementary where there are no more birthday circles, homework is abundant, and independence is the key to success.

As I write this, I'm taking a break from filling out report cards. It is exciting to see the measurable data in student progress. Looking at beginning, middle, and end of the year test scores can sure make me crack a smile! However, the things that you can't measure--and no one else can really see--are the most valuable to me. Too bad it's the least important data for a report card.

Report cards don't capture how many hugs we gave (and received) this year, how many times a student stopped what they were doing to help a friend, who participated in class discussions or the several times we completely got derailed in order to stop and appreciate each other.

I value the academic accomplishments and am so proud of my students, but I really want to highlight some of the biggest milestones we had this year.

At lunch one day, one of my most reserved students felt safe enough to respectfully advocate her perspective on adopting animals. She did it in such a mature and kind manner that I was completely taken aback. I emailed her mom to let her know how proud I was of this young girl.

I also had a student who is so shy that he hardly ever speaks in group settings. He has gained some confidence this year, but I was completely blown away when he nailed his solo part in our class play! He sang his little heart out on stage. I was teary eyed watching him and again while writing this.

I have a little first grade boy who demonstrated to the class what grace looks like during a puzzle contest in which he challenged me. He's an expert puzzle master (but so am I) and all year he's asked if we can do a "puzzle challenge." With 20 minutes on the clock, we both frantically scrambled to put a 100 piece puzzle together in the classroom in front of our biggest fans (my other students). He's good enough that I couldn't let my guard down and I ended up winning (barely). Instead of sulking, he stood up and gave me a high five and said, "Ms. McKenzie, thank you for doing that with me." His reaction speaks volumes for his character.

Report cards also don't measure the fact that this year one of our classmates passed away. It doesn't show the compassion these kids were capable of, the tears that were shed, and the projects that were sprung into action to memorialize a good friend. It doesn't show that we lost instruction time because we were too sad and confused to go on. Or that I now have a huge stack of books about the loss of a child and my class has every one of them memorized. 

Report cards don't show that their little hearts had to go through so much.

They don't show the times that I asked students to just pitch in and help me get things done and the little sleeves that rolled up instantly. They don't show the coffee that was delivered, the lunch that was shared or the times that we all belly laughed together.

My favorite memory of this year happened right after we returned from winter break. Our classmate passed away while we were on break, and I was distracted and foggy one day and stood in the lunch line holding up 3 fingers instead of our usual 2 finger peace sign. One student said, "What are you doing Ms. McKenzie?"

I immediately snapped to it and felt myself getting embarrassed and turning red. They must have noticed because they all sprung into action saying, "That's OK, Ms. McKenzie! It just means extreme peace." I looked around and all 23 little hands were proudly holding up 3 fingers to save my pride. I started crying, of course, and proudly displayed my 3 finger peace sign the rest of the way to the lunch room.

To this day you'll find my class holding up 3 fingers instead of 2, 99-percent of the time. It's a special memory that only this particular class will ever really understand. I know that five years from now, if we run into each other in the halls and hold up 3 fingers it will be like our own little secret language.

So, while I value data and understand the importance of assessments, I also value life experiences just as much. While I'm writing report cards and inputing numbers, I'm also reviewing our year together. If your student didn't get the highest points on a math assessment or isn't reading at the desired level, remember that doesn't mean your child isn't successful. I can guarantee that your child's teacher can rattle off a hundred special memories from their year together that would demonstrate what type of person your children are much more effectively than any data driven report card can.

So my little birds are getting ready to fly the nest.

I'll send them on their way and wait for some of them to return to me next year. For those that won't, I'll check on them (secretly of course) and wait for the opportunity to hold up 3 fingers next time I see them in the hall.

How did the year finish up for your kids? What are you looking forward to for summer and next school year? Leave a comment and let us know!





Tuesday, May 28, 2019

End of the Year Class Performance....Tips and Fails

How to FAIL at hosting a class play
For many, the end of the school year is fast approaching, and mine is no different! As my school is getting ready to wrap up the year there are so many festivities going on! We've already had Spring Break, an art festival, and a Mother's Day celebration. So, why not add more to the chaos? 

My class is performing an end of year play.


That's right, a play. At the very end of the school year. As things are more chaotic than ever.


I knew it was coming, so I ordered the play ahead of time. I researched all of the options and finally settled on "Character Matters." I chose this play because it includes fairy tale characters that my students will know and also seemed to fit the age group that I teach.


I had grand plans for how this play would go off. We would read it through a few times and the the students would go home and memorize their lines and we'd only have to do a formal rehearsal the week before the play.


Nothing could go wrong, right? I mean, I had a plan in place!

Part of our play backdrop.
Let me just tell you how wrong I was!

Not only did I not account for the fact that not all of my first graders can read, but I also didn't expect my more outgoing students to be so shy when it came to performing on stage. 

Before you ask why some of my first graders can't read -- I teach at Montessori school where reading expectations and pedagogy are slightly (sometimes dramatically) different than in your standard elementary school system. This includes reading. And, my class is actually a first, second, third grade combined class!


We ended up reading the play at least 5 times before we even settled on parts. Then we had to buddy up poor readers with strong readers. Once we had decided on roles and began to practice I saw how little I had accounted for regarding the actual "acting" part of putting on a play.


So, we got down to basics.


We practiced facial expressions, how to make big movements, how to walk on a stage and what a microphone is.


After spending several days of acting lessons, we were ready for our first play practice.


I use the word "practice" loosely because what it really looked like was a bunch of cats 

running around the stage, bumping into each other, screaming into a microphone, and yelling at each other for forgetting lines.

Back to basics we go.

My teaching assistant took time out of her already busy schedule to practice with students in groups and help them to feel more comfortable speaking, singing, and acting on stage. We perfected their skills in small groups. By now, surely, they were ready for the big stage!


Nope, nevermind.


This time students decided that they would add their own lines (without even saying their actual lines) and it became a free for all on stage.


I tend to be pretty easy going with many things, but when my class performs.....it's on. I'm a perfectionist when we do something collectively, and you should have seen my face.


Four weeks of practice and we're still running around like caffeinated crazies, sometimes standing too far away from the microphone and sometimes putting the whole thing in our mouths.


After some stern warnings and more practicing the basics we decided to try one more time on the big stage.


This time we invited some audience members hoping that would give some extra motivation.


My students got up on stage and sang their little hearts out, acted like professionals, and nailed their lines.


The mishap this time? Totally my fault. I decided to save money and buy only the physical music cd to go with our play and, of course, it started skipping -- I guess that's what happens when you play a CD over and over approximately 2 million times ,but it happened at the worst possible moment! 


Luckily, Bad Wolf Press (where I purchased the play) is amazing and I was able to purchase and download the digital version right away. 


Lesson learned -- buy both the digital and physical copy of your play music!


We're now one week out from our big performance. I've gone from seriously regretting my decision to take this class play on to I can't wait for parents to see it! I know the kids will be amazing and the parents will be thrilled!


Two dress rehearsals this week, lines all memorized, costumes in order, and our backdrop is made! We'll be sharing pictures on Instagram after the play -- the kids haven't seen it yet and it's a big surprise!


All in all, I'd definitely do a class play again, but in this situation, the teacher became a student too. I learned that acting is not intuitive and I could have saved myself time and anguish by starting our play preparations with basic lessons on acting, composure, and expectations.

More of the play backdrop.
Our final performance is this Thursday, and I can't wait to see the parents faces when they see their little ones belt out a solo or nail their lines. I know I'm going to cry too -- I always do when I see my students succeed after working hard.

So after about 500 hours of play practice, 100 hours of acting lessons and many "reminders" we're finally ready for our big day!


I think this is a great way to end our year on a positive note and it definitely taught my students (and myself) that when you work hard you can conquer your fears and be successful!


What are your experiences with class plays and end of year projects? Drop us a comment and let us know!


Big City, Small Chickens – BOOK REVIEW: City Chickens by Christine Heppermann


Big City, Small Chickens – BOOK REVIEW: City Chickens by Christine Heppermann
Please note: This book review is cross posted at Caffeinated While Reading.

Title: City Chickens
Author: Christine Heppermann
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Year published: 2012
ISBN: 978-0-547-51830-5
Genre: non-fiction; children’s literature; agriculture; lifestyle


Cluck, cluck, cluck!!!! That’s the sound of the lady chickens in that urban backyard you just walked past.
Wait, what? Chickens in the city?

YES! Urban chickens and urban homesteading are becoming more and more common, but that doesn’t mean life is always clucks and feathers for chickens. City Chickens by Christine Heppermann is all about the plight of many chickens in urban areas, but more specifically in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She traces the story of a husband and wife in the city who have devoted their lives to rescuing chickens (among other animals) and finding them new homes.

The book is part biography, part fun and informative story, and part social awareness. 

This is a great, but very honest and real, look at what happens to many chickens and how their lives are improved by kind rescuers. I highly encourage you to read this book with your kids or in your classroom, but be forewarned that there are a couple of disturbing photos of chickens who have been used in cockfighting and who are kept in chicken cages. These disturbing situations are described as well, but not in too much detail, in order to bring awareness to how chickens are abused and how they should be treated instead. The book is mostly about how great chickens are and how fun they can be to keep and care for when rescued and taken care of properly. 

In addition to profiling the owners of Chicken Run Rescue in Minneapolis, the author also profiles a adolescent Abigail and her rescued chicken, Billiam, as well as other chickens and their rescuers. I think young readers in particular will like that there is a profile of a young person and that other children are also featured in the book. The very back of the book also offers a list of resources for learning more about chickens, including how to include lessons about chickens and life cycles without hatching chicks in the classroom – a large reason why many chicks are abandoned. 

City Chickens also talks about keeping chickens healthy and some of the health problems that abandoned chicks often suffer. The author notes that if you keep urban chickens, it is important to find a veterinarian that is able to provide proper chicken care which may not always be easy to find in an urban area. 

I loved this little book, and I think you should pick it up to read with your kids or in your classroom. My son and I are planning our own little homestead and urban oasis (we’re moving from the country back to the city!) and want to raise chickens for their eggs, as pets, and also as insect control in our garden (all of which are noted as options in City Chickens), so I headed to the library to find books about chickens. Most of what I was found was far beyond what I was looking for which brought me to the children’s section and City Chickens

As with many of the books I review, I found City Chickens Christine Heppermann at my local library. However, you can also find it on Amazon HERE.

Do you raise chickens? Have your kids participated in chicken hatching projects at school? Drop a comment and let us know!
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