Inspiration.It comes sometimes.

28 Jan

I got back into blogging because of a friend who blogs. We had the chance to hang out this weekend, and it really got me thinking.

Those who know my regular blog know I usually put things into a very theoretical and practical approach to Montessori. I have seen so many blogs about different ideas of what to do in the classroom or people sharing their own ideas about what Montessori is. Nothing against those blogs. They are wonderful. I just wanted to offer insight to understand the current educational trends within a Montessori perspective. Through my blogs and discussions online, that is what I focused on. And I would spend countless hours trying to make sense of something in terms of a Montessori perspective, and  people would get it.

So what changed my perspective? I met a really amazing friend. She wrote about her first time out at a local bar in Changhua. And the writing style changed me. I told her about that this week. Her writing style really got me thinking about how my writing style is not personal enough. And I thought that was how she inspired me. Her blog actually did inspire me to write more, but that is not the whole story.

It took her asking why I was inspired by her to think of why. I gave the answer I gave above. I was hanging out with her and another friend that day at her place, so I did not think past it. But then the real reason hit me.

It came back to a conversation we had one night in a bar about Montessori. I was describing the system and she seemed amazed by it. I have seen that so many times in people searching to really care about their students.

There are so many amazing teachers. They do what they can with what they are given, but I know they struggle. But what makes me admire a teacher is how much they care. If that is there, the rest can be figured out. I am inspired by those who are commited to education.

 

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A Montessori View of Torture Cells and Dinosaur-identity Confusion

15 Jan

I previously wrote about my experience teaching at Northern KY Montessori Center. This story happened there.

Imagine a very literal child is sitting with a child who is having problems with pronunciation. Both are about five years old. The boy looks at the girl’s drawing.

“What are you drawing?” he asks.

In her best ability, she answers, full of errors, “I’m drawing a tourtoshure (turtle shell).”

”Why?”

”I like them.”

”Nobody likes them,” replies Will.

My ears perk up. What are they talking about? Why do people not like them? I sit back and listen.

“Why?” she asks. She is as confused as I am.

“Why do you like them?”

“They are cute,” she replies. Yeah. You go, girl. Tell him about those turtle shells.

”You like them?”

”Yes. I like tourtoshures.”

At this point, I have no idea where this conversation is going. I know she is a turtle shell advocate. Will obviously hates them. But why? Children are probably coming up to me at this point ready to explode into reading, and I am like, “shhhh. Not now. This is too good, little kid.”

Finally, it happens. Will speaks his mind in such Will-fashion. “WHY DO YOU LIKE TORTURE CELLS?”

Where a five-year-old learned the phrase “torture cell,” I will never know. But he knew it. And he thought the turtle shell was a freakin’ torture cell.

“Will,” I said. “She said, ‘Turtle shell.’”

”Good.” With that, he felt the need to exapand. “I just don’t like torture cells.”

That experience is unique to the specifics, but not to teachers of young children. They misunderstand things and it is often funny to hear. It really is a big and wonderful part of the job of teaching young children.

Fast forward years later to when I come to Asia. I was faced with understanding none of these conversations. They were golden to me as a teacher in America, and I cannot even know more than a few words my first month. It hit me when my Chinese teacher was sitting with a student and laughed.

“I just asked him what he wants to be when he grows up,” she said. “He wants to be a dinosaur.” Then it hit me.

What I loved about teaching was hearing these small things that children do not understand. This three-year-old boy literally thought he could grow up to be a dinosaur, as if it were as easy as being a telemarketer. But I could not understand the language of it. I was so far away from my comfort zone.

My teaching experience, at that moment, became something it never was. An amazing part of my teaching before was listening in on those torture cell conversations. After arriving in Taiwan, my joy of teaching was something else. I could not, at the time, listen to any of these conversations. It was a shock. The dynamic of the classroom relationship between my students in Taiwan and my students in America is, and has been, very different. It is not better or worse, but it is different. That was a hard thing to come to terms with initially.

Toddlers, Tea Parties, Explosions, and Tampons.

7 Jan

People who know me now may be surprised to know a small fact about me: I wanted to be anything BUT a teacher.

Sure. Now you see me around the bar reading books on the history of foreign language teaching or brushing up my memorization of the Absorbent Mind. But I did not join this profession expecting to be in it.

You see, I was the jack of all trades, master of none. If you ever need your car maintenanced while simultaneously needing a discussion about your antique cash register and needing to know for your term paper how Nero Caesar is really the Beast in the book of Revelation, all while I am entertaining a crowd while I bartend, I am the man to call. Especially if you cannot solve your Rubik’s Cube (easiest part). I am sure if the right combination of all of that ever came to a point of needing to happen in the same night, I could charge a premium. As of now, Craigslist has nothing looking for that person.

So my Montessori career really started with a want ad and an almost refusal for a job. Long story short, I needed a job. I saw an ad for a Montessori School looking for a Toddler Teacher in downtown Cincinnati. I called and got ahold of the director, Pauline, who quickly told me the position was filled, but I could send in my resume if anything else came up. I got her email and she asked my name.

“Matt Bronsil.”

”Bronsil?”

”Yes.”

”As in Beth Bronsil?”

”Yes. She is my mother.”

“Oh. She was my trainer. Can you come in at 3:00?”

So there it was. My first teaching interview was due to my name recognition. I am ok with that.

I do not fully remember the interview. The biggest part I do vividly remember was seeing the Toddlers during their time after snack. I was standing at the door looking in and a three year old boy looked at me and said, “Do you want some tea?”

“Of course,” I said and stepped into the room. There I was sitting there with a group of children, as they all gave me tea. It was not during normal work hours, it was pretend play, but it was so much fun sitting with me, in a suit, on a small plastic chair. Realize I am not a small person. But they kept giving me “tea,” and I just sat and enjoyed them all. Pauline later told me that is why I got the job, but to be honest, it is the only thing I remember from the interview.

So now I am the assistant in the toddler classroom, Ms. Marty is the main teacher. This meant within a short time, I had to do what so many me before me dread: the diaper. I didn’t actually dread it. I fixed brakes before. I built computers. This is just taking off a plastic thing and putting it back on: like replacing a broken headlight. Except imagine the headlight exploded with shit.

Yeah. No mechanic expects that. None. And we even expect you to forget to tell us you used fix-a-flat. (My mechanic friends will understand). But exploding diapers are wayyyyy worse.

So I know how to do it NOW. But that did not help me THEN. The diaper changing station had poop all over it. Everywhere. So I put the toddler down to clean up, but I put him in it. Let’s just say on a scale of one to ten, it was a HUGE number 2.

I cannot remember if I made it through or finally asked Ms. Marty for help. Either way, the next day, I remember Pauline saying, “I heard you had your first diaper experience.” I got better. I swear.

So. Lesson #1 in teaching: “Holy shit. What was that?” I still think a good teacher has to ask that regularly. Otherwise you are not looking for the unexpected and trying to adjust.

So. One day it was nap time. Ohio law dicatates (at least at the time, I have been out of America for a while) that the student:teacher ratio doubles during nap time. That means that we get a break while the other watches. The goal: get them to sleep. The lights are off. The kids are asleep, all except one. That is fine. He is not bothering anyone. He is awake, but making no noise. Then I hear him laughing. I look over and he is waving a candle in the air. The candle has a long wick. “Where did he find that?” I wonder.

As I walk closer, the only thing I can see is Ms. Marty’s purse. Still confused, I continue approaching, wondering why Marty has a long-wick candle in her purse.

Women, if you are reading this with a stupid man, you can either explain this or let him figure it out once I tell him. Men who get it, realize I would have known what it was if my first split-second thought were not a candle with a long, flexible wick. Everyone who does not get it, he was waving around a freaking tampon. Now, if you still do not get it, go google image search it rather than embarrass yourself.

So now I am stuck taking a tampon away from a two-year-old.  That was awkward. But now I have to figure out what to do. Marty just went to Hamburger Mary’s for carry out, which was a block away. She could be back any minute. Do I put the tampon back in her purse and risk her catching me going into her purse? Do I hide it? That could be bad for her if it is all she has. For, you know, yeah. You know. Do I stand around and guard the tampon? I PROMISE you that no matter what advice you give me is just based off never having been in this situation before. If you can honestly say, “I have taught in a Toddler classroom and sat next to the teacher’s purse, holding her tampon, while still trying to describe why I, a male, am holding a tampon that came from her purse without a single credible witness over 3 years old,” I will listen to your advice.

But there I was. Now, this was in 2001. It has been 18 years, and I still cannot think of a suitable Montessori quote. Not one. If you have one, comment below.  So she comes back. I keep it quiet.

Finally. Time to wake up the kids. Lights are on. Now or never.

”Hey, Marty?”

”Yeah?”

”Jim was playing with a candle during nap.”

”What?! We don’t have a candle here.”

”Well. He was right next to your purse. I think this is your ‘candle.’”

Thankfully, the hilarity of the situation is what worked. Marty was amazingly funny about it.

That was really my first job teaching, at least in this run. Strange that my first Montessori teaching experience involved tampons and poop everywhere. But we all have our own path. I am just glad both never mixed with the tea party.

 

“No. Let Him Do It…”

3 Jan

I grew up in Montessori, but my understanding of Montessori teaching really developed when I worked for Northern Kentucky Montessori Center (now, Northern Kentucky Montessori Academy). I did not have my Montessori certificate at the time and worked in the school as an assistant in their (at the time) only program, a 3-6 program.

The director, Kitty Salter, opened the school in 1967 (if memory serves me correctly. They recently celebrated 50 years). Kitty, or Mrs. Salter as the children knew her, did so much by the book that I really learned a lot about the ideas and reasons behind everything done in Montessori, at least for this age group. Lisa Wellbrock was the head teacher of the class. A recent grad from Xavier University’s Montessori program, she was someone I loved sharing stories about my mom with (my mom was the director of the Xavier program at the time I worked there). Still following structure and big on following the rules, she had a softer approach to everything than Kitty.

I had a unique role as an assistant in the class. I was not your normal “hands off” assistant. The parents knew our role, but I wonder how many of the children did. I learned from them how to work in the classroom as a teacher. Children came to me as much as Lisa. They taught me how to teach with the materials and it was a wonderful experience. Many of these came from actual direct instruction. I remember when Lisa said, “Ok. I am going to show you how to do the three period lesson” as she taught a child the names of the geometric solids. Other times the lessons came without explanation, but were extremely powerful.

David, working with the sandpaper numerals, sat at a rug confused. In our class we had two sets of the numerals. One set was set up in a line in order and the other was in a box. We had it that way so the students could match them as a visual discrimination activity.

He matched up every numeral except the nine. He picked up a second six (really, an upside down nine), came to Lisa, and said, “There are two of these.”

”It is right. Go back and try it again.” Confused, he walked back. He put all the numerals back in the box, took them out again, and had the same problem. He took away the six, put his “other six” down, and still had the same issue. A minute before we were going to tell the children to clean up their work I asked Lisa, “Should I go show him?”

”No,” she replied. “Let him do it.”

I was lost. While amused at watching poor David try to figure out this mess, isn’t it my job as a teacher to help him understand this?

The next day came and David still had not figured it out. In the morning, I made sure the nine was turned over. It was his first work. After much trial and error: still nothing. I still wondered if I should help, but again I got the same response: “No  Let him do it.”

Day 3 came and I am certain the numeral is upside down in the morning. David, determined to do this, takes out the work and takes it to a rug. I watch as he gets to everything matched up except the nine. Suddenly, he grabs it, turns it upside down, and looks up at us and smiles as if he won the lottery. He set the newly found nine down and completed the work.

On one hand, he could have been told to turn over the six and it would have been easier. On the other, this became something he learned through much work and dedication to solving this mystery. The real lesson here is not that a six turned upside down is a nine. The real lesson is to continue working and try hard, and the knowledge will become your own, not someone else’s.

Rosemary Quaranta, who also works at Xavier, said that there is really one teacher per child because the materials are a teacher. I’ve since told teachers to trust in the material first to teach the children. There are times, sometimes lasting days (or longer?), where you should really let the child discover.

In one simple phrase, “Let him do it,” I learned the true meaning of Montessori. In Montessori’s own words, “Never help a child at a task at which he feels he can succeed.”

 

We are constructivist language teachers, not behavioralists.

2 Jan

The basic idea of behavioralism is fairly easy to understand. There is a stimulus. The stimulus creates a response. Since I am ranting about EFL teaching, let me give you some examples.

My first day at my school, I told the students to stand up. All the students stood up and said, “I STAND UP.” The stimulus (saying, “stand up”) prompted the response (the children suddenly standing up and, for whatever reason only known to whoever taught them this, decided to boldly announce it).

Another example is classic in Taiwan. “How are you?” asks someone. The response is always the same here, “I’m fine, thank you. And you?” It is almost like they twitch and say it because it has been drilled into them. Many people hear the three syllables, “How are you?” and, as if by some robotic switch turned on in them, have to reply with what they learned since they were children.

So far, it sounds OK. After all, children are learning to say things quickly, right? So what is the problem? Let me just jump right in and describe the problems with this.

1) Students are not learning language regularly used. Imagine going to a conference. The speaker asks everyone to stand up and one obnoxious person stands up and screams, “I STAND UP.” Suddenly, nobody at the conference wants to talk to that person. We don’t do that, so why would we train the children to do it? The example of, “I’m fine, thank you. And you?” is problematic. We just do not say that. In fact, the first time I heard it in Taiwan was my first day of teaching, and I was amazed at how creative and different it was. I was wrong on my assessment. We say, “How are you?” as an alternative to “hi.” We do not want to engage in a conversation about our feelings, so let’s not ask the other person about it. Before we continue, this is a minor problem, and one that can be avoided if we condition responses native speakers are used to giving. When someone asks, “How are you?” I often reply, “Good.” Those type of responses can be conditioned. But realize that is a small percentage of language.

2) This concept does not work. Behavioralist methods of teaching language work for a very small percentage of the population, and usually not even in isolation without other methods. They generally work for adults (not children) who have a strong reason to learn a language. Even then, evidence shows there are most likely better ways to teach them. The simple fact that it doesn’t work well on children means Taiwan should have thrown it out years ago, especially for younger children.

 

The most important reason…

3) LANGUAGE IS ABOUT COMMUNICATING IN RELATIONSHIPS, NOT SAYING A PREDETERMINED RESPONSE.  There is no possible way to prepare a person to say the right thing to everyone who says something because there is an infinite number of things that can be said. What happens with language is communication, which is much more complex than a simple stimulus-response setup that behavioralist models present.

So. What does work, especially with children:

1) Language they can understand based on the context of meaningful work they are doing. In a Montessori environment, this is perfect because the children are already engaged in meaningful work. This is harder to build (but not impossible) outside of a Montessori environment. But the longer they are in the work cycle in Montessori, the more time they have in meaningful work.

2) The language also offers some challenge. Maybe they do not know every word, but understand the context and can figure it out, with or without help from the teacher.

3) A focus on input, not output. The teacher still has to find ways to see if understanding is happening, but so many people want output before the child is ready. Don’t. Don’t do that. Provide input, watch for UNDERSTANDING. So much output is behavioralist-driven. That is not good.

I would be irresponsible if I did not mention why I think behavioralist ideas of teaching language are still so strong in Taiwan. It is something I have struggled with in almost every school I have been in. One big reason is it provides easy evidence of having learned something. If children respond a certain way when they hear or see something, parents see something happening with the language. The problem is, that does not mean true communication happened.

Second is a real benefit: let’s assume you are going on vacation to France and want to learn some key phrases quickly, but do not want to acquire a language. The behavioralist models of language instruction may help with this. This looks at being able to use specific phrases quickly. But that is not the goal of most Taiwanese parents when they send their child to English class, so we need to squash this idea. How much of a learning curve your boss has is a different question entirely. I wish you luck.

Book Review: Montessori Comes to America

31 Aug

Every so often, I come across a book I cannot put down. I know, it seems like I constantly read, but the reality is I usually am reading 5 books at the same time. This is one of those few books I picked up and kept reading.
The history of the Montessori Movement in America is quite a unique story. When Maria Montessori first came to America in the early 20th Century, she was met with a lot of excitement and enthusiasm for her method. Shortly after, she was barely heard of in America. In her book, Povell gives us the history of the early Montessori movement, where it failed, and provides us with a unique look at her good friend, Nancy McCormick Rambusch, who is credited for bringing back the Montessori Movement in America.
This book not only looks at the Montessori Movement from a historical standpoint, but also a more personal standpoint. Nancy McCormick Rambusch clearly had an impact on the author (Phyllis Povell) and both McCormick Rambusch and Montessori are portrayed as leaders who had a vision of positive change in the educational system. This book is an important book not only for those interested in Montessori Education, but those who truly find a calling in education and are looking for inspirational leaders.
Book Information:
Chapters:
Acknowledgements
Prologue
1. The Evolution of Women’s Leadership
2. The Radical Life of Maria Montessori
3. The Peripatetic Life of Nancy McCormick Rambusch
4. Montessori and Her Method Come to America
5. Montessori Education Returns as a Social Movement
Pages: 137 (not including index, biography, etc.)
Linkto purchase this book from Amazon.com: http://astore.amazon.com/monteblog-20/detail/0761849289
Back Cover:
What role did women’s leadership play in the introduction and revival of the Montessori Method in America? Phyllis Povell explores this question through the contributions of Maria Montessori and Nancy McCormick Rambusch, who brought the Montessori Method to the American educational scene.
Introduced to the U.S. in the early 20th century by Montessori herself, the Method lapsed into oblivion after WWI. Thanks to Rambusch, it was reborn after the launching of Sputnik.
In Montessori Comes to America, Povell traces the evolution of women’s leadership and its influence on the Montessori Method’s development. She includes insights from her own formative years, showing how childhood, education, and career all shape women into leaders.
New research not only illuminates the unique roles of two historic early childhood educators, but also updates the historical record and reveals the human dimension behind one of the most colorful chapters in American educational development.

Dear Montessori Teacher:

24 Aug

Dear Montessori Teacher,

You have a job and tradition to uphold.

You have a certain insight into childhood that others might share, but you do.

You have a responsibility to state what you believe is best for the children in your classroom.

You have a responsibility to do that within the idea of certain ideals and values you hold true.

You might be in a position like me. A die-hard Montessori fan who is a half a world away from a Montessori school and doing the best you can in your current situation of teaching to a test or a textbook. You might be in a situation where you don’t agree with EVERY Montessori idea you come across – God knows I have had to explain my “talking dog” to quite a few Montessorians. I can see those as justifiable.

What I find sickening and (more accurately, disturbing) are the long list of questions I see about how certain Montessori schools operate:
–behavior charts on the wall.
–No long, uninterrupted work time.
–No observations, but writing communication books every day.

And the truth is…I see these concerns from parents of your school who email me privately or on message boards that focus on Montessori. Most of the parents are too afraid to speak up because they do not want to rock the boat.

What is happening? Why are we doing this?

You have a special calling. You can do what the children need. You can be amazing in a child’s life. You can be that one teacher this child remembers for being the loving one…not the punitive one who moved their name from green to red, but really saught to talk to them with an understanding of the stress they are going through in school every day.

Get your act together now. If you’re not Montessori, tear the name off your school. Just stop making it hard for those that are by giving Montessori a bad reputation.

The BEST thing about being a Montessori teacher is learning how to do things better. If you haven’t had that wake up call, here it is. Go and deal with it.

Sincerely,
Matt Bronsi
http://www.montessorimatt.com