Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Apple Pie!

"The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, "The children are now working as if I did not exist."
-Dr. Maria Montessori
It's officially apple harvesting time! For weeks, the children have been munching on the crunchy bounty growing on the apple tree in the yard, begging their parents at the end of the day to let them pick more apples to take home with them, and toting around little buckets of fallen apples during play time.
Today, we decided that the apples were ripe enough to celebrate the first week of fall with one of our most popular baking projects-homemade apple pie. To prepare, the children took turns carefully scaling a small ladder and picking apples from the tree (there was a never-ending line of enthusiastic children for nearly forty minutes- no sooner would they climb the ladder and pluck their selection, than they would race back to the end of the line to anxiously await another turn).

Once our basket was brimming with crimson specimens, the children carried it into the kitchen to begin their preparations.

The apples were peeled, cored, and spiral sliced using an old-fashioned, hand cranked, apple peeler and corer. The children thought this was lots of fun!

They particularly liked the spiral slices of apple that it produced!

The children made quick work of the mise en place for the pie. It was time to begin baking! The children mixed together the fragrant ingredients,
rolled out the pie crust into 1/8" thick sheets, cut it into rounds, pressed it into individual pie tins,

and ladled them full of the apple filling.

Perhaps most exciting, was the leadership exhibited by the eldest students in the classroom. One of the greatest benefits of the Montessori environment is the mixed age group; this permits the oldest children to assume additional responsibilities and serving as role models to the younger student. This allows older students to review concepts, consolidate their own knowledge, gain confidence and leadership experience. Additionally, it fosters an authentic sense self-esteem by permitting them to make a meaningful contribution to the classroom community. Simultaneously, it provides younger children with good role models and exposure to more sophisticated uses of language, social interactions, ways of thinking, and advanced lessons.
It would be hard for me to imagine behavior more worthy of imitation than that of the oldest children in the classroom today. The eldest children led the younger children through the baking activity- tying their little aprons around their waists, explaining the ingredients, helping them roll out their dough, and gently assisting them in preparing their little pies. They were helpful, patient, and kind. Sometimes, all the teacher needs to do is sit back and observe (and, perhaps, beam with pride).

All that was left for me to do was place the little pies in the oven! Within minutes the entire school was redolent with the intoxicating fragrance of cinnamon and apples.

Fittingly, the children concluded the day by enjoying their Autumn refreshment on the patio next to the apple tree and a lawn covered with the first sprinkling of crunchy, fallen leaves. Honestly, what could be better than warm apple pie in the company of friends?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Inspired Materials: Sunflower Seed Saving

Here is one of my favorite Autumn Practical Life Lessons- Sunflower Seed Saving. Like many practical life lessons, removing seeds from a sunflower with tweezers helps young children to coordinate the fine motor movements of their hand, develops finger strength and concentration, and indirectly prepares the child for handwriting by developing their pincer grip. Additionally, it ties in nicely with units about the seasons, botany (parts of a plant/parts of a flower), and gardening.
It takes a surprising amount of finger strength and precision to remove the seeds, and I imagine that most people would be truly amazed by how interesting children find this activity and how long children will persist at the activity.
After all of the seeds are removed, children can roast the sunflower seeds, plant them, or use them to make pinecone bird feeders!

Thanks to Terri Todd, of Mapleton Montessori (Boulder, CO), for introducing me to this work (merely one of many debts of gratitude I owe her).


One of the things that I love most about exposing children to seasonal food is the way in which it helps children to connect with the changing of the seasons and with nature. As our garden and CSA shares near the end of the season, we thought it might be fun to teach the children a little about food preservation and the activities that might take place on a farm in Autumn. We decided to use these beautiful little gherkins to make homemade pickles.

During the morning work session, the children busied themselves with carefully scrubbing the pickles and chopping off the ends.

Then, each child filled their own jar with cucumbers,

and added the pickling spices (fragrant dill and mustard seeds).

Then, the jars were filled with hot brining liquid

and sealed with lids (the children were completely captivated with the magnetic lid-lifter, which is used for removing hot lids from the sterilizing bath!).

Voila! Homemade pickles to share with their friends during snack time and to take home to share with their families! Not a bad way to celebrate the first week of Autumn!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Nonviolent Communication Workshop

"On this higher educational level justice is something truly spiritual; it tries to ensure that every child shall make the best of himself. Justice, here, is to give every human being the help he needs to bring about his fullest spiritual stature, and service of the spirit at every age means helping those energies that are at work to bring this about."
-Dr. Maria Montessori
"Your mind is like a piece of land planted with different kinds of seeds: seeds of joy, peace, mindfulness, understanding, and love; seeds of craving, hate, fear, anger, forgetfulness. These wholesome and unwholesome seeds are always there, sleeping in the soil of your mind. The quality of your life depends upon the seeds you water. If you plant tomato seeds in your garden, tomatoes will grow. Just so, if you water a seed of peace in your mind, peace will grow. When the seeds of happiness are watered, you will become happy. When the seed of anger in you is watered, you will become angry. The seeds that are watered frequently are those that grow strong."
-Thich Nhat Hanh

On Saturday, we spent the day attending professional development workshops at the Montessori Education Center of the Rockies. It is always a pleasure to attend workshops like these and to be in the company of so many committed, passionnate Montessorians. The assistant teachers had the opportunity to attend a great workshop specifically for Montessori assistants while I went to a very interesting workshop about Non-Violent Communication. The workshop I attended was "Language that Removes Obstacles," with David Shindoll and Kate Kendrick.

I thought I would share some of what I learned with you (hopefully my notes are reasonably coherent). If you would like more information, the books Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life and Teaching Children Compassionnately by Marshall Rosenberg are available for check-out at the school; additionally you can visit the Center for Nonviolent Communication at http://www.cnvc.org/ to learn more, and for a selection of parenting books which utilize the principles described here.

What is Non-Violent Communication?

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Non-Violent Communication, or NVC, it is a process developed by Marshall Rosenberg, a psychologists and frequent keynote speaker at Montessori conferences, which is designed to help people re-frame how they express themselves and how they hear others. It seeks to replace habitual, automatic, or reactionary reactions with words that are chosen consciously based on our awareness of what we are perceiving, feeling, and wanting. It helps us to simultaneously hear others without resistance and defensiveness, and to clearly identify and articulate what we want in a given situation.

What Does Rosenberg Mean By the Term "Nonviolence" As it Applies to Language?
Obviously when one speaks of violence, they normally mean the use of physical or verbal force. Generally, it also includes the elements of threats and manipulation, compelling a specific action on the threat of experiencing pain or being hurt. Rosenberg describes violence in communication as "words that lead to hurt or pain, either for ourselves or others" and states that he uses the term non-violence as Ghandi used it "to mean the state of compassion when violence has subsided from the heart".

However, it is easy to understand non-violent communication in a deeper sense as well. When we meet someone who is different from us, and it is hard to imagine someone too much more different from an adult than a young 2-3 year old child (research shows that their brain and the way that it operates is very different from ours- their manner of thinking is different, the connections they draw between things is different- animistic and magical thinking, the way they attribute causality to things, their limited experiences differ significantly from ours, their limited ability to express what they are thinking and feeling differs from ours, and their frontal lobe has less developed capacity for self-control and ability to foresee consequences than ours, and on top of all this there are differences in family structure, cultural differences, etc), in order to "understand" them, we take what is unique and individual (and unknown to us) about a person or an experience and try to render it knowable by identifying and labeling it (this is an "autistic," "middle class", "Caucasian" "child", from a "broken home", with "impulse control issues," throwing a "temper tantrum"). Although descriptions of this kind might sound objective, factual, even clinical, the myriad of labels and judgments convey very little actual information about the individual person we are interacting with (and, in fact, would probably quite seriously distort and prejudice our view of that individual). Nevertheless, we act as if all of these labels and identifications help us to "know" the child. When philosophers speak of the violence caused by language, this is the more radical statement that they are making- not that language can hurt someones feelings, but that language takes something singular, unknowable, indeterminate, and unique and simultaneously produces and reduces it to something already known. This violence prevents us from really ever experiencing difference or otherness and limits or pigeon-holes individuals by treating them as if they were pre-determined, producing trite stereotypes, lasting prejudices, and preventing people from fully expressing or embodying their true potential.

Power Over Others vs. Power With Others

In the Montessori environment, we want to use language to support the independence of children, liberate the human potential, and create the kind of communication where everyone can have their needs articulated and met. NVC identifies two types of consciousness: power over other and power with others; it is this second option which permits the child to simultaneously follow their own inner guide while also allowing them to benefit from the direction and support provided by the aware adult guide.

To achieve power with others, NVC posits that when we observe an "undesirable behavior," we remember that "at every moment, people are just doing their best to get their needs met." As a result, our goal as a guide to the child is to "connect with the unmet need that is motivating the behavior, and remember that it is a need that we all share."

Non-Violent Communication vs. Behaviorism

These two core concepts of NVC, that we want to share power with children and that we view behavior as being motivated by unmet needs which require our understanding, are very radical in the context of children. The leading "discipline" or "classroom management" techniques used and recommended to parents and educators in most venues of society (from television shows like Super Nanny, to many parenting books, to licensing and education classes which teach child care providers to set up "token economies" or sticker charts to address "undesirable" patterns of behavior, to school "reward" systems for managing behavior) are based on the opposite approach, Behaviorism. Behaviorism focuses upon behaviors, without considering any internal thoughts/feelings that might be motivating the behavior, as though only what is seen and measured is real. In the Behaviorist model, we merely identify the behavior that we want to change (we want Johnny to stop hitting his peers) and apply reinforcers (either positive reinforcers -Johnny gets a sticker every time he goes a day without hitting a peer; or avoidance conditioning-Johnny does not have to sit in time out if he stops hitting his peers). Behaviorist models are used frequently because they are so simplistic and they do not require any actual knowledge of the individual child (we do not need to understand Johnny's reasons for hitting, or even that he has reasons, or attempt to identify or address the needs that are unmet in his life, etc). To a Behaviorist, the individual is completely fungible (any child could be substituted in his place so long as the reinforcer was sufficiently tempting or detering); additionally, the same reinforcers (a sticker chart, time out, etc) can be used for any child in any situation. Behaviorism is generally efficient (it is faster to send Johnny to time out and not interrupt the story you are reading to the group than it is to stop and mediate the dispute) and Behaviorism is generally effective in getting temporary compliance. In the Behaviorist model, it is the adult who has power over the child- the adult establishes the token economy, the adult exacts the reward or punishment, and the adult decides what behavior is acceptable. All that is required on the part of the child is compliance.

One (of several) dark sides to Behaviorism, or having power over, is what it does to the relationship you are trying to create with the child. Rather than create a relationship in which the adult becomes a trusted guide that the child can approach when they have a problem or need advice, the adult becomes a mere enforcer, dolling out punishments and rewards.

The Four Components of Non-Violent Communication:

1) Observe without Evaluating

In the NVC approach, when we feel that there is conflict, or we see a behavior, or pattern of behaviors, that feel undesirable to us, we momentarily stop and consciously suspend judgment. Instead of reacting to the situation, we stop and try to observe the single act without evaluating.

Pausing vs. Reacting-
There are two important elements here (in fact, I daresay, if I were creating this method, I think I would have made them separate steps altogether because reacting out of habit without thinking can be so automatic). The first step is pausing. By pausing before responding to a situation, it prevents us from being reactionary and allows us to connect with ourselves, consider our response, and to experience choice. Pausing before acting allows us to remember that between stimulus and response there is a space (although our genetic, cultural, and biological inheritance may help this space to appear larger or smaller and may make it more or less likely that we are reactionary). In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In those choices lie our growth and our happiness. This choice is the essence of being human. We (and our responses to the circumstances that we encounter) are not a product of our genes, our moods, our past, how others treat us, or our facticity. These factors unquestionably influence us, but they do not determine us. We are self-determining through our choices, and in every moment we have the choice to respond differently and the power to reinvent ourselves or change our future.

As a result, the entire process of non-violent communication begins with our own self-control and the recognition that all people are self- determined (consciousness creates its own values and determines a meaning to her life).

Observing vs. Judging/Evaluating

The second step is observing without evaluating. Our mind is really conditioned to filter and assimilate data to its existing framework, so when we view an act it is very hard to see it for what it is (a single instance); it is far too easy to overgeneralize, catastrophize, stereotype, pigeon-hole, ("He is aggressive," "He is mean," "He doesn't get along well with others," "He can't control his actions") or judge others without really observing. Often times, we rush to judgement first and then look for examples and instances to corroborate what we already "knew."

Observing without judging is the one step in the process that should be easy for Montessorians as we are trained not to correct errors, but to make note of them, to observe the child carefully for more information, and attempt to address the error in a neutral moment in which it does not feel like a correction.

In general, if you find yourself using words like "always"or"never," if you find yourself labeling someone ("aggressive," "whiney," "passive aggressive," "manipulative," "needy," "clingy," etc), or if you find yourself unable to succinctly state what bothers you (or a specific instance of it), these are indications that you need to observe them more closely. To attempt to act at this stage (and change or address a behavior), without further observation, would be doing so without a clear understanding of what it is that you are trying to change. When people try to change something without being clear about what is bothering them, the situation is unlikely to be changed (and even if it did, you might be unable to notice or measure progress- maybe Johnny used to hit six times a week and now he is only hitting three times a week) as a result they are likely to feel that things are hopeless, intractable, or beyond their control.

To give a concrete early childhood example, instead of thinking "Johnny always hits his peers," or "Johnny has a lot of anger," or "Johnny is really aggressive and doesn't get along with his peers," one should simply factually state what is occurring "Johnny hit Susie with the shovel during recess" or "Johnny hits other children in the class an average of twice a week." These statements do not make a judgment about Johnny, they do not formulate an attitude toward him, and they do not attempt to predict his future behavior; as a result, when dealing with Johnny in this state of mind you are more likely to be level headed and constructive. After more observations, perhaps you might discover additional patterns ("Johnny hits others in some instances, but shows extremely good self-control in other instances"; perhaps you will discover that "Johnny hits others right before nap time when he is tired and it might be harder for him to control his impulses", etc). Even more important than over-generalizing behavior is that we do not form judgments about the child ("Johnny is mean to others)." These judgments are not constructive, they pigeon-hole Johnny and reify his behavior (treating Johnny as if he is nothing more than his past acts). Additionally, they prevent us from accurately seeing who he really is and they are often self-reinforcing (Johnny picks up on our attitude toward him and behaves in the way we expect).

One presenter summed it up this way: "It's not what you observe, but how you observe; clean the lenses."

2) Consider Your Feelings and Accept Responsibility For Them

After observing without evaluating, the NVC approach asks that we take a moment and become conscious of our feelings, not our thoughts, about what has happened. For example, "I am feeling worried about Johnny, concerned for the other students, and frustrated with myself as a teacher." This step can be difficult, both because it requires a certain amount of vulnerability and because many of us acting and thinking as if our behaviors and feelings are determined by our circumstances or by the actions of others. It is important not to link your observations with your feelings; what others say and do can be the stimulus, but not the cause of your feelings. Our feelings are not caused by the actions of others (we are not sad or angry because Johnny hit Susie, we feel sad or angry because we have the unmet need to feel that all of the students are safe from harm). Our feelings result from how we choose to receive what others say and do, as well as from our own particular expectations and needs in the moment. It is important to acknowledge that you have the choice to respond and feel differently.

3) Relate Your Feelings to Your Own Values

When we see/hear something we interpret as negative, there are four options four our response: we can blame ourselves ("If I were a better teacher this wouldn't happen."), blame others ("Johnny is a bad kid with a lot of anger management and behavioral problems" or "If Johnny's parents would have done more at home this wouldn't happen."), or we can "shine the light of consciousness" our own feelings and needs. This step involves linking the feelings we are experiencing with the values/needs which are being unmet. This step is important because it helps us to remember (in a society that is sometimes rife with victimization and blame) that other people are not the cause of our feelings. Once we see our feelings (especially hard ones- anger, sadness) as stemming from our needs, rather than the actions of others, we are better able to try to find solutions and strategies for meeting them. The litmus test for having successfully accomplished this work is being able to say, "I feel___ because I value/need ___ ," (in the case we are discussing, "I feel worried because I value harmony in the classroom and need to feel that all of the students are safe," or "I feel frustrated because I need to contribute to the happiness and growth of my students").

In the case of a conflict, there is a second task to be done here and that is attempting to relate to the needs of the other person through empathic listening (which could be a separate post, or a separate seminar in it's own right).

4) Express Your Request

Once you have fully put yourself in touch with your feelings, it is time to request that which would help you to have your needs met. "Johnny, I noticed that you hit Susie in the sandbox. I feel worried because it is important to me that we have a peaceful classroom and that all of the children feel safe here. Could you agree that you will use your words when you feel angry and come to me for help if you need it."

The request should be very specific, simple, and preferably stated as a positive (please do __, not please don't __). This last point is particularly important, to change a behavior we don't want to merely tell a child what they cannot do, we need to help children find other positive, growth promoting options. The ability to regulate one's behavior and control one's own impulses is a skill that has to be learned (as well as the result of a maturing frontal lobe); it is our task to help guide the child in this task of self-mastery and toward the acquisition of these skills.

Another important aspect of this approach is the recognition that it is only a request if the person has the authentic option of refusal (How do we know the difference between a request and a demand? based upon what happens when the person says "no"). The goal is to have reached a state of compassion in which we can be empathetic toward the person even if they do not agree to the request. If the person refuses the request, it may be necessary to consider other strategies, but the situation is still far from hopeless because although there can be a "crisis of creativity," as far as coming up with solutions goes, there is never a disagreement about needs or values (NVC posits that needs are universal, so conflict always occurs on the level of strategy).

What Should I Do If I Respond "Violently?"

Everyone has moments when they are frazzled, short-tempered, insensitive, reactive, or wished in hindsight that they had responded to a situation differently. In these situations, the speakers recommended that parents or early childhood educators consider journaling about these experiences. It is very important to be compassionnate with yourself (the point of journaling is not to beat yourself up, but that you can only change those things which you attend to/notice). The mere act of considering, in a neutral moment, how you could have responded differently, makes it easier to choose differently the next time; additionally, it helps you to increase the space between the stimulus and response (by reinforcing that you have the choice of responding differently).

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Taxonomy and the Animal Kingdom: Mollusks- Part Two

"There is in the child a special kind of sensitivity which leads him to absorb everything about him, and it is this work of observing and absorbing that alone enables him to adapt himself to life. He does it in virtue of an unconscious power that only exists in childhood."
-Maria Montessori
The past few weeks, the science shelves have been stocked with lessons focusing on mollusks. The children have busied themselves with using puzzles to learn the parts of a snail/gastropod,

making labeled pencil and watercolour drawings of gastropods,

raising a dozen small freshwater pond snails (which began as a cluster of gelatinous eggs attached to the leaves of an elodea plant).

reading about mollusks,

and looking at some mounted specimens of mollusks.

The children were very interested in the classroom shell collection, in particular. Many of them were happily surprised to learn that the Harold Feinstein print which hangs in the classroom is a photograph of a nautilus shell (many of them previously referred to it as "the roly poly"- they automatically assimilated the image into conceptual schemes that were based upon more limited experiences).

Over the past few weeks, children have been bringing shells (conchs, abalone, limpets, etc) to me and asking questions about the invertebrates that lived in them; I kept responding that the animals were very similar to a snail (having a muscular foot, tentacles, a radula, and eye stalks). Unfortunately, I knew that the answer was a little unfulfilling, given that we seem to have reared the most inactive pond snails I have ever seen (they seldom came out of their shells at all, even with the enticement of food).

So, over Labor Day weekend, we set up a small saltwater aquarium in the classroom. My obliging husband built a small platform for the tank so that it would be the perfect height for the children (so they could easily see the entire tank and so they could sit on their knees for extended viewing). So far, it is stocked with a large Turbo Snail, four Turban Snails, and a Spider Conch. It also contain a few non-mollusk companions (a Mandarin fish, a Midas Blenny fish, a Chocolate Chip Starfish, a Red Tipped Hermit Crab, and a Striped Cleaner Shrimp). After the aquarium has become established, we hope to add a few more interesting creatures for the children to observe.

Needless to say, the aquarium is very interesting to the children. At practically all times of day, one or more children can be seen crowded around, carefully observing the activity in the tank. I have been tremendously impressed with the quality and exactitude of some of their observations (one four year old boy remarked that the cleaner shrimp liked to stay in the cave and asked whether it might be more active at night, when it was dark- a quick flick of the light switch in the tank and he was able to both test his hypothesis and get a hands on demonstration of the term "nocturnal"). I am very excited about this new addition to our classroom (and happy to have found more interesting snails!).