Orienting our Children for Change

By Kerry Pratchett – Rewarewa Teacher, Preschool

Last year Jan told us that she had handed in her notice after many years of working at Wā Ora.  I think, whilst it was a shock, we also knew that she wouldn’t be with us forever.  Whilst transitions can be testing, I think that Jan prepared the community well for the changes ahead.  We did not have long to wait before we were told that Ava would be taking over in the role of Principal.  We even had a chance to sample the change when Jan went on a sabbatical and Ava came to ‘visit’ us for a term.

As we begin this new term, the preschool has had a number of tamariki move over to the primary school; at the same time, we have also welcomed new children into our preschool classes. This time of change can be quite stressful for a class or family, where we are getting used to new people, rules and expectations.  Orientation is a human tendency. Dr. Montessori spoke about how all humans need to orient themselves to their environment.  If we think of a child coming into a new environment they need to familiarise themselves with the new teachers, classmates and surroundings.  Once they have completed this process and feel safe, they then begin to explore and concentrate with certainty.

We are very lucky at Wā Ora to have our education go from 18 months to 18 years, as this means that students can see, ahead of time, where they will be moving to.  This hopefully makes those times of transition a little easier and since Montessori classes are grouped in three year bands, children don’t have to do it so very often!

Notwithstanding, these times of adjustment can still be challenging. To make life a little easier for everyone during these times, there are a number of ways support can be offered:

  • Communicate with your child about the changes that will happen and when they will occur.
  • Build a relationship between yourself and the new teacher – it is important that your child does not see your anxiety.
  • Punctuality – arriving on time allows for a relaxed start to your child’s day.
  • Allow time to chat – this does not need to be you directly questioning your child about school; often children will open up during those quiet 1:1 times.
  • Be prepared for your child to be upset, quiet and missing their old friends.
  • Allow time – parents, who have already been through a transition with a child, know that after a while all of the worries that you both had are just a distant memory.

As the school goes through a huge transition, I can see that both Jan and Ava have prepared us well.  I wish Jan all the very best in her new position in Bali and really look forward to getting to know Ava better.  Happy Transitioning!

Wonderful Mischief

By Richard Goodyear – Kawakawa Head Teacher – High School

In the wonderful book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice has many encounters with the Cheshire Cat who baffles and amuses, confuses and helps and at one stage disappears to the point where only a grin is left. Alice remarks, “I have seen a cat without a grin, but never a grin without a cat”.

Those tendencies to amaze, adapt, amuse, push boundaries and occasionally perplex us, can also remind us of our wonderful teens. They are inconsistent but not untruthful, frequently helpful, often mischievous. In equal measure sincere and sarcastic, robust and fragile, bumbling and straight talking, watchful and oblivious.

Dr. Montessori put it like this. ‘It’s a delicate age…an age of doubts and hesitations, of violent emotions, of discouragements.’

As educators, our job is simple (but not easy). Understand the characteristics of the age-group, prepare the environment and remove obstacles for normal development. Considering the flip-flop nature of the adolescent as outlined above, what environment is needed?

Dr. Montessori named it ‘a school of experience in the elements of social life’. This is one of the ways we think about what we do in the high school. A place where our rangatahi (young people) can try out aspects of the ‘real world’, but where it is safe to make mistakes and where they will have a strong community around them. There are many aspects to this. I’d like to highlight some of the ways we address the need for a healthy emotional environment.

We place a huge emphasis on relationships, and on building a strong, supportive community. We consciously provide many layers to this approach, some visible to the students, while some work away in the background.

Each student has an ‘advisor’ who is their key person for any pastoral issues. That teacher builds a strong relationship with the parents, who are another vital element. If things get too much, a counsellor is provided by the school.

We provide many opportunities for issues to be resolved including restorative meetings. We meet in groups once a week where all those students who share an advisor can discuss what’s going on in the classroom, in a slightly more public way. Then we have our weekly community meetings where students acknowledge each other’s efforts and where class issues can be discussed and resolved.

In the background are regular advisory teacher meetings where we discuss how the teens are going as individuals and how the community is ticking (or spluttering) along and what needs to be done in the coming week as a response. In our full high school meetings (which regularly include specialist teachers) we can have similar discussions but with the full teaching team.

All of this can seem like hard work, but actually what’s happening is that our adolescents, like the Cheshire Cat, are reminding us that life is rich, unpredictable and varied. The more we work to provide an environment that acknowledges this, the more interesting our job is.

Montessori “Elevator Speech”

By Sharon Udy – Totara Teacher – Primary

Whenever I meet someone for the first time, we seem to have a conversation along the lines of, “What do you do?” “I’m a Montessori teacher.” “Oh, what’s Montessori?”

When I was a new teacher I would sometimes avoid this by just saying, “I’m a teacher” but I soon realised that not enough people know about this gem we have discovered, so I changed my answer to, “I’m a Montessori teacher” and tried to answer the inevitable follow-up question the best that I could. This is a daunting prospect, as there are so many aspects that could be discussed, but so little time to do it justice. You may only have a minute or two (at most) to give a compelling and clear statement about the essence of Montessori education.

One term for a short explanation like this is an ‘elevator speech’ – so called because the speech can be given in the time it takes for an elevator to go up (ie. 30 seconds to two minutes).

My Montessori ‘Elevator Speech’ has varied greatly over the years and I have given more or less information based on who I am speaking with and the reaction I am getting from them. As a parent of a Montessori child, as well as a teacher, I can now add more to the speech, but the problem has always been how to fit enough in, and what to leave out!

The Montessori philosophy encompasses all aspects of human development. We learn in our training about the four Planes of Development, their characteristics, and how we can meet the needs of each in our learning environments. Then there are the Human Tendencies and how these manifest in each plane of development. This is the incredibly valuable knowledge which forms the basis of our work, but it is far too much jargon to inject into a short speech.

Instead, I talk about the innate curiosity of a child – their deep desire to learn and their endless questioning. I talk about how students in traditional schools often lose this love of learning very quickly. I talk about students in Montessori schools choosing their own work and choosing how long to continue with it, or about our long uninterrupted work cycle and our open-ended, integrated curriculum.

I talk about the three year levels in each class, where children learn from each other and become teachers – where there is no stigma when 9, 10 and 11 year olds have a lesson together because they are ready for it, or it is a topic of great interest for them.

I talk about how traditional schools are only now experimenting with discovery or inquiry-based learning, flexible seating arrangements, individual and small group lessons, personalised learning and learners and teachers working together – these are all integral parts of the Montessori philosophy and have been for over a century!

Have you got a Montessori ‘elevator speech’? What core elements do you include?

Freedom, Responsibility and Social Development

By Jackie Kirk – Kauri Teacher – Primary

In a Montessori primary environment there are certain freedoms given to the child which must be balanced with responsibility. The amount of responsibility that the child has, determines the amount of freedom that can be given to them. In other words, the more responsible a child is, the more freedom they will have.  The teacher assists the child in being accountable for not only their own learning, but for their social interactions within the community, which in turn aids each child in his/her own ‘self-construction.’ “Only through freedom and environmental experience is it practically possible for human development to occur.”  Maria Montessori

Some essential tools used in the primary class to assist freedom and responsibility are the child’s personal work journal, regular meetings (conferences) between each child and the teacher and societal expectations.

The work journal is a written account of how the child spends their day. The journal is not a place to plan work ahead of time or write down feelings. It is simply a responsible monitoring of the lessons and freely chosen work that the child participates in daily. This includes the date, the name of the piece of work/lesson, and the start and finish time. The child using their very best handwriting skills, can add their own individual artistic flare to beautify their journal and include details, so that they may recall what they did at a later date.

Another tool used to assist with freedom and responsibility is conferencing. This is a formal meeting between the child and teacher, ideally weekly. Older and extremely responsible children may meet less often. It is a time for the teacher and the child to look over their work journal and take a close look at how the time is being used and to share finished and unfinished work. These meetings enable the following questions to be explored: Is the child responsible for the freedom given to him/her? Is the work of expected quality? Has the child explored all areas of the environment or just a favourite? These meetings allow the opportunity for the teacher to be prepared to offer supportive guidance to enable the child to think of alternative solutions, improvements and suggestions to be responsible for their education. Whatever is discussed during these meetings must be followed up on in the future.  If the teacher neglects to follow up, the child does not have a clear responsibility check on their freedoms.

The final tool is societal (Ministry of Education) expectations and are talked about with children and incorporated into conferences for the child to consider when looking at what lessons they would like /need to have.

The teacher is responsible for using these tools in order for the child to be able to explore the universe while fostering freedom, responsibility and social development.

Lucky and Unlucky Behaviours

By Jan Gaffney – Principal

Last term, while I was on sabbatical, I went to the states and attended two international conferences and visited schools. I was looking at established high schools mainly and what they were doing to ensure their programme fitted the needs of the students and stayed true to Montessori philosophy. More on that later.

The first conference I attended was in Austin, Texas and was the NAMTA adolescent colloquium where high school teachers from all over get together once a year to discuss what is happening. This was an amazing conference and joined with the AMI refresher, so there were teachers of all ages there. There were close to 1000 attendees all up and we joined together for the key note each day before going off to our own workshops.

The first keynote was Dr Ross Greene. His talk was fascinating and worth sharing in my opinion. Dr Greene isn’t a Montessorian, but what he said reverberated with me and with the other Montessorians in the room.

His talk started with us all agreeing that children want to do well. Then he told us that while many people thought children did well if they wanted to, his research and that of others, proved that children did well when they were able to.

He then talked to us of some children having lucky behaviours and others having unlucky behaviours.  He said both of these behaviours were designed to tell us that the children weren’t able to do what was asked, but the difference was that some children showed us this in a more socially acceptable way than others, leading to the terms ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’ behaviours.

He described lucky behaviours as crying, raising a hand, whining (though I didn’t necessarily agree with that one), complaining, sulking, withdrawing, asking for help, etc. Unlucky behaviours were described as hitting, biting, screaming, swearing, etc.

And then he said that both sets of behaviours were designed to tell us the same thing – that the child couldn’t do what was being asked of them and they needed help in order to do so.

He said that if we could reframe the behaviour in our own minds to be, “That child is unlucky in that he or she can’t show us what she needs in order to succeed”, then maybe we could be more empathetic and collaborate with them to help them build the skills to do so next time. He said that the problem was not that the children didn’t want to meet our expectations, but that they couldn’t. And then he topped it all off by saying, if the children couldn’t meet our expectations, then we needed to change our expectations and help them gain the skills so that they could meet them.

Profound words and ones I really enjoyed hearing. If anyone wants to find our more, he has a website www.livesinthebalance.org where he goes into much more detail than I have room for here. I’ll end though on the fact that this fits in so very well with Montessori philosophy, where we are supposed to take a child as they are and help them move on from there. Easier to do with the academic subjects – consider how much help we give to a struggling reader or writer – but harder to do with behaviour because of all the societal expectations. Harder to do perhaps, but just as important, if we are to help each child meet his or her full potential!

“Help me to Help Myself”

By Tara Israelson –Nikau Teacher, Preschool

During our recent MANZ conference, Montessori kaiako (teachers) from all over Aotearoa were welcomed by tamariki (children) from Montessori schools around Wellington.  Wā Ora was represented by both preschool and primary children and it was lovely listening to their sweet voices.  The song that the preschoolers sang was “Help me to Help Myself”, a song written by Mary Coffey, a local teacher.   I thought I would elaborate on its message here with you.

Dr. Montessori, through her years of tireless observation, came to the conclusion that children are innately driven towards work that helps to develop their bodies and minds.  They are constantly observing and absorbing the world around them and are eager to act in and on their environments without interference.

Parents of Montessori children will often hear kaiako (teachers)  talk about “work” in our learning stories and our informal chats about your child’s day at school.  As adults we may resist that word, as to us, “work” is a kind of toil – something we would rather get out of.  According to Dr. Montessori adults have two laws governing their relationship with work:  division of labour and maximum gain with minimal effort.  Basically we want to be efficient and share our load so we aren’t working so hard.

The child has a vastly different approach, because a child’s “work” is, of course, to construct him or herself.  For this reason children do not wish to “divide their labour.”  You may have experienced this as a parent when you reach out to help and they angrily say, “No!  I can do it!”  These young children also do not strive for efficiency, as their need to develop their body and their character outweighs getting the job done.

They cannot however, in all reality, do everything for themselves.  We, the adults in their world, have a minor role to play.  We are responsible for providing children with the tools to act in, and on, their environments independently, with as much time for repetition as needed.  This is the message in the song “Help me to Help Myself”.  We must be there to give the little lessons:  how to dress, how to wash, how to tidy, but we must refrain from doing the work of dressing, washing and tidying.  Dr. Montessori said, “every useless aid arrests development,” meaning that we need to think twice before rescuing a child when we perceive a need for assistance.

During the day in our Montessori classrooms there are many moments when the kaiako (teachers) could step in and help, but we resist!  We watch as water is spilled and then cleaned up, or a child struggles to put his shirt on, but keeps at it until he’s dressed.  We sit and wait for many minutes for a child to put on her own shoes before heading outside to work.

As the adults in their world, we must remember that our role is to offer the tools and our patience, so that the child is free to do the important work of creating him or herself.

The Limitations of Digital Personalised Learning

By David Starshaw – Mathematics Teacher – High School

In another life I could’ve easily been the poster boy for digital, personalised learning.

– I am one of those “paperless” types.

– I can code (for a very generous definition of coding).

– I have made my own website for my students to use and I have used sites like Khan Academy, both as a teacher and personally.

In other words, I should be all for digital, personalised learning. Digital, personalised learning is characterised by the student no longer being dependent on the teacher, but being free to work at his or her level regardless of the stage at which other students are working. Digital technologies help facilitate this as computers and servers do a lot of the differentiation ‘grunt work’ and they can lead students through pre-prepared lessons at a pace that suits them. And yet…

What’s the problem? One of the most commonly stated advantages of digital, personalised learning is that the student can fast-forward, pause, and rewind videos as they’re watching them. As Dan Meyer, US math educator/blogger and international advocate for better math instruction for students, puts it, “This isn’t good instruction, this is what the technology permits.”

So why isn’t it good instruction?

When someone says something you don’t understand, how often do you ask them to “repeat exactly what you just said, only slower”? Ironically, personalised learning is unable to tailor its lessons and explanations for individual students.

This should not be a difficult expectation. In fact teachers do this all the time and yet, in 2017, digital personalised learning cannot.

Teachers also take into account the prior knowledge of their students before choosing the level at which to pitch their lesson. But if you search for an online video explaining, say, quadratic expansion, it will begin at exactly the same place for each viewer. Because it must. Because it can’t personalise itself to you.

In our Montessori high school, a significant part of the adolescents’ learning relates to their place in the world and the relationships they have with those around them. In our preschool at Wā Ora, there is no place for devices and digital technology and our primary classes can only access computers in a very limited capacity.

So while digital personalised learning can have advantages because of the technology it uses, it is not a panacea and it certainly can’t replace a teacher and hands-on learning, rather it needs to be utilised in conjunction with face-to-face learning where it is the teacher, who is ultimately guiding the student.

Our Connection with Early Humans

By Carol Palmer – Tawhai Teacher – 9-12 Primary

After our recent 9-12 camp where we focused on the ways we meet our Fundamental Human Needs and the ways early humans would have met these needs, a friend, and Wā Ora parent, commented that she had ‘never understood why you guys are so obsessed with early humans.’

My answer was this:

The early humans were the first explorers, discoverers and inventors.  They figured out how to meet their fundamental needs, such as shelter, food and water in the most basic of circumstances; everything we know, have discovered and created since, is built on the work of those who came before us.  At Wā Ora, we are teaching the children to appreciate the work of all people – those who make small, but meaningful, contributions to our everyday life.  We want them to appreciate the farmer, who discovered that the graphite used to mark sheep, could be sawn into sticks for writing; and the person who later realised that binding that soft metal stick in wool or leather would make it more durable, leading yet another person to think of encasing the graphite in wood, which would then lead still more people to work together to mass produce these tools. This means that many generations later every school child has a pencil that can neatly mark their paper without breaking or making their hands dirty.

Ours are the everyday heroes and in learning to appreciate these people and understand that every single manmade item in our lives has a history of invention, refinement and production, children see just how many people’s work goes into ensuring our needs are met.  It helps instil a sense of gratitude and appreciation to the humans who, all around the world, work to produce all the material assets.  Our job as Montessori teachers, is to build a sense of gratitude and love for all people. One of the ways we do this is to show the children how many people have put love and work into providing for us.

We are not so much obsessed with early humans as obsessed with all humans – beginning with the early ones.  When we talk to children about our fundamental needs, we want them to realise that there are a few key requirements that all human beings, regardless of time, culture or geographic location share.  The very first human beings, and every human being that lives now, share the same material needs and spiritual needs. We have these needs in common and whilst we have very different ways of meeting them, the fact that we all share them helps the children see that we are not so different. It gives a sense of affinity with people throughout the world, young and old, past and present.

And to know someone, is to understand them. And to understand them is to love them.  And to foster this love and gratitude towards all people, of all time, is to bring us a little closer to peace.

Handwriting: Why Cursive?

By Robin Wilkins – Puriri Teacher, Primary

I am frequently asked, “Why cursive?” and in fact recently, was even asked why we teach handwriting at all, given the prevalence of computers in schools (did you know this question was first asked back in 1873, when the Remington typewriter was invented?).

Current articles and books focusing on the issue of handwriting address the difficulties of teaching cursive when following traditional education models, however this is not the approach used in a Montessori programme. Each environment – preschool, lower and upper primary and adolescent – is made up of materials, activities and methods that are carefully designed to meet the developmental needs of the child within that level’s three- year age-range.

When looking at writing, the manual preparation of the hand is interwoven with a child‘s need to express thoughts and feelings. We teach the cursive method beginning in preschool, as it corresponds to the physical and mental needs of the child at that stage. In ‘The Formation of Man’, Maria Montessori discusses the benefit of kinaesthetic preparation for writing, where she says, “The physical act of forming words on the page helps us to not only develop better handwriting, it also helps us to develop the neural networks that become memories and knowledge.” Cursive handwriting best mimics what the child does naturally. When a young child draws or acts out writing, he/she forms looping, connected shapes, not geometric, print-like shapes.

Much contemporary research evidence supports this. A study from the University of Washington found, “Forming a written word, letter-by-letter, leaves a stronger memory trace for written words than does a word, letter-by-letter, using a keyboard, particularly in developing writers” and interesting research out of the University of Toronto and Colombia University states that, “If cursive fades away, so will cognitive skills that only cursive handwriting builds. If children don’t learn those movements, their brains will develop in a different way that no one has really thought through. When a child types or prints, he produces a letter the same way each time. In cursive, however, each letter connects slightly differently to the next, which is more demanding on the part of the brain that converts symbol sequences into motor movements of the hand.” Practising the complex demands of cursive also builds fluency in language as studies confirm that characters learned through print or typing are recognised less accurately than those written in cursive. Another behavioural and developmental study says, ”When doing form drawings or writing in cursive, the right and left hemispheres are both active and working together. Print is a more abstract and advanced task that requires only the left hemisphere, often not developed enough for this task until 7-9 years.

As is backed up by modern scientific evidence, cursive still holds many advantages for the learning and development of our children.

The Benefits of Story Telling

By Krista Kerr – Pohutukawa Teacher

In the preschool, we start our year off with frequent and varied small groups. We have many conversation groups as tamariki are full of news about all of the exciting things they have done over the holidays. For preschoolers, speaking is a relatively recent ability that they now love to practice.

Storytelling groups have many benefits: they help tamariki stay on a topic and learn the ‘rules’ of conversation such as turn taking and listening to others. They also play a large part in building the community of the akomanga as we get reacquainted and new tamariki start to build relationships with kaiako and their peers.

“The development of language is part of the development of the personality, for words are the natural means of expressing thoughts and establishing understanding between people.” Dr Maria Montessori

Tamariki love hearing and learning about their world and those in it so these stories do not have to be wild, fantastical tales to capture their interest. Indeed they can start off with a sentence such as “At the supermarket yesterday….” or “On my way to school this morning…..” These stories give value and importance to the little everyday things we do, and are about something concrete that children of this age can relate to.

A true story may last a minute or two before moving on to another person in the group or if the focus of the group is me telling a story then a verbal story may be told which is much longer. This extends concentration for tamariki in a way that reading a book cannot. As there is no ‘object’ on which to focus their attention, more self-control is needed to sit and listen.

Reading books with tamariki certainly has its place, both at home and at kura, however verbal stories are equally important. In many cultures, including Māori, oral storytelling is used as a way to pass on knowledge and history. Only you know the intimate details of your child’s life and their history and ancestors.  Tell stories such as “It is such a surprise that you don’t like to brush your teeth! Let me tell you about the time we found your toothbrush snuggled up in bed with you…” or “When I was five years old …” or “Your Nana came to New Zealand from….”

Children of any age can be engaged in these stories, learning their personal stories as well as those about their family historyFamily trees fascinate children as it helps them to work out their place in the family and the world. So make the most of a snuggle at bedtime, a car trip or any spare moment together to start a story.

A short article on the benefits of oral storytelling: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/what-kids-learn-from-hearing-family-stories/282075/.