Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Lower Elementary Classroom September Highlights

We can't believe it's only been two and half weeks - so much has been going on in our classroom!  We just looked at our pictures from the first week and it felt like they had been taken a month or two ago.  There has been so much action and growth here already.

We began the year looking at our own community: who we are and consciously discussing what we'd like our classroom community to look like. The students worked in small groups, with a thoughtful selection of mixed ages, new students, and the third-year leaders.  The leaders in the group took this role very seriously and are still carrying this role on: helping younger students, teaching them, as well as reviewing their own skills in all areas of the classroom. The students have really gelled and it feels like our little community has become a family, caring for each other and relying on each other.

We have been reading and looking at a variety of different creation stories as a whole group in preparation for our First Great Lesson: The Coming of the Universe ( based on the scientific story of the Big Bang Theory of Creation).  It will be given this week.

As Autumn returns and the cycle of the season surrounds us, the children have been finding and bringing us dead things: a dragonfly, a walking stick, a cicada exo-skeleton, butterfly wing, frog vertebrae, deer bones. This has inspired discussions about vertebrates and invertebrates, which has also inspired the budding “scientific illustrators” in our community.  On the Equinox we used our “Seasons Mat”.  We sat down and looked at our globe, the mat, a candle, and observed the earths axis and how with the Earth's rotation around the Sun we see the changes in the year.

The classroom is humming with joyful learners. There has a lot of bustling activity around our thesaurus, synonyms, homophones, adjectives, and the study of words.  Multiples of numbers are another hot topic in the classroom as you can tell by all of the children working with the bead chains in our pictures.  We overheard one child turn around from her work and say to one of her friends, “I have figured out multiplication” (with a confident grin on her face).  Our youngest student is creating his own map of the world, the oldest is creating a proportionate Solar System, while all of the other students are working on everything in between.  It is joyful and busy!

We have so much to share and we can talk more when we meet for Parent Teacher Conferences...which brings us to the next topic...
You spoke and we listened...

Lower Elementary Parent Teacher Conferences are scheduled for Friday, October 9th from 1-4.  P.M. And the following week after school on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.  On Friday we will have openings at 1:00, 1:35, 2:10,2:45 and 3:20. After school conferences will be at 3:30, 4:05 and 4:40.  If any of these times don't work for you please let us know and we will find a time that does. Please email or text Kris with your top three choices as soon as you can and we will put the schedule together.

Here are a few important dates to remember:

Wednesday, September 30 Namaste Friends 4-H Club will return to the Tburg Farmer's Market.  Please reach out to Bridgid for sign-ups.

Wednesday October 7     Open House and Philosophy Night at the Elementary Campus
The open House is from 4-6pm followed by Montessori 101 from 6-7pm Childcare is available for the philosophy workshop, but please sign up ahead of time. This is open to all, please spread the word – invite friends, family, neighbors!

Friday, October 9th Early Dismissal- pick-up is 12:15-12:30. Lower Elementary Teachers will be holding conferences, remaining faculty will meet at Primary School.

Monday, October 12 School Is Closed  Fall Break/Columbus Day

Friday October 16 School Pictures

We are also planning an all-day event to Indian Creek Apple Orchard in October.  We will send some more information as we know more; we would love a couple of chaperones.

We have also have a field trip scheduled on  November 13 to the Museum of the Earth.

Thank you for sharing your beautiful children with us.

Peacefully Yours,

Kris and Gretchen

Sunday, September 27, 2015

"Finding a school for your child is kind of like dating, it's imortant to take time to find the right match." What questions should you ask a potential school?

Choosing the right program for your child is a complex decision. There are many options to consider and school quality depends on many characteristics, many that are not easily measurable. You must look carefully at all of your options and make the decision that is best for your family.

*photographs courtesy of  Kristin Croker, Namaste Montessori School

Elementary School options in available in our area 
(Ithaca and surrounding areas): 

 • Enroll in your home district elementary school
Ithaca – Belle Sherman, BJM, Caroline, Cayuga Heights, Enfield, Fall Creek, North East, South Hill Trumansburg
South Seneca

• If your district has more than one elementary school, like Ithaca, you have the option of open enrolling at another elementary school in your district (based on availability)

 • Enroll in a public elementary school that is not in your district and pay the state set out of district tuition rate


Namaste Montessori School (Toddler through 6th Grade)
Elizabeth Ann Clune Montessori School of Ithaca
Chemung Valley Montessori School
Ithaca Montessori School (infant, toddler,preschool, and K only)
Trumansburg Montessori School (half-day preschool and K only)

 Ithaca Waldorf School

Immaculate Conception (K-6th)
Covenant Love
Notre Dame (7th through 12th grade middle and high school)

Home Schooling:
Contact BOCES and your home school district office

 What To Ask When Choosing a School for Your Child 

Before You Visit and Observe
Ask yourself, “What do I value most in a good education?”
What aspects in an educational setting are most important to your family?
Ask yourself how you envision your child at age 24 and work backwards to determine what he or she needs to get there.
What qualities in an educational community will meet your child’s needs?
What kind of learner is your child (hands-on, auditory, visual, collaborative, independent)?
Does she like to work alone or in groups?
Is she skilled at any particular subjects?
Where does she need extra help or support?
Does your child have unique learning needs that must be accommodated? 
Is she shy or very social?
Most importantly, what kind of school will work both for your child and for your family?

 When You Visit and Observe at a School 

What is the look and feel of the school?
Does it feel warm and inviting?
What kind of work is up on the walls?
Is it original student work that highlights individuality and creativity?
Are the facilities old or new?
Do the people you meet in the office and pass in the halls seem happy?
Do the teachers and students seem to enjoy being there?

Your child will be in this building for a large portion if his day.
Is it a comfortable place to live and learn?
Are there different options for sitting and working (floor work, soft chairs, individual desks or tables, group tables, carpets, quiet nooks)
What is the lighting like (natural, soft or harsh)?
What are the acoustics in the classroom like (noisy, quiet)?
Do children have the ability to move around freely?
Where are the bathrooms?
Can they use the bathrooms whenever they need or do they need to ask permission?
What about snacking and food in the classroom?
Can children eat when they are hungry or must they wait until assigned times?
What is the lunchroom like?
Are healthy food choices available and encouraged?
Where do the children play and have physical education?
Are these comfortable spaces?


Does the school have a particular philosophy or educational approach?
Is the approach modeled on the work of any particular educators?
Does the school utilize any special educational programs or offer specialized teaching?
Is there a consistent school wide philosophy or do individual teachers implement different philosophies?
How does the new Common Core Standards impact the teaching philosophy of the school?
How does the school feel about grading and tests?

Classroom Size and Structure

How large are the classes? How many teachers?
Is there support staff in the classroom?
Are students able to get differentiated learning?
Do children work in small groups?
Do students get individualized assignments and unique attention?
What happens if your child is ahead of the class academically?
What happens if your child is struggling in an area academically?

Learning Community

What’s the learning environment like?
How do children choose their work and receive lessons?
Are students displaying independence, self-motivation, concentration, and problem solving skills?
Do the students have a voice in choosing their work and shaping their day or is it all laid out for them by the adults?
Do students work cooperatively in small groups or by themselves?
Are the children genuinely engaged in their work or does it seem more like busy work?

Is the teacher standing up and lecturing, or working with students in active ways?
Is the teacher using visual and physical models as well as text to teach?
Do kids get to manipulate materials and objects as they learn?
Are children allowed to work with a concept until they’ve mastered it or is the class moved forward together at a set pace?
Are individual differences (such as in learning styles and academic strengths) being accommodated, or do all students do equal activities at the same time?
Ask yourself, “Will my child’s learning style be suited well to this school’s approach?”


What kinds of exchanges do teachers have with students?
Do the teachers make real connections with their students?
Is there a tone of mutual respect?
Do the teachers work to facilitate independence, support self-motivation, and encourage problem solving skills?
 Do the students seem excited and curious?
Does it feel like the classroom is a community where everyone has an equal voice?
Do the students respond with enthusiasm to teachers’ questions?
Do many of these questions inspire children to think about and brainstorm answers, or is there only one right answer?

Do teachers learn from each other? Ask if specific times are set up for teachers to talk, share, and collaborate. Find out what happens on ‘curriculum days’ and what kinds of additional trainings are offered to teachers. Are teachers encouraged to work together as teams?

Student Work

What does student work look like?
Look around the classroom and ask to see some classwork and homework assignments.
Does this work look creative and inspired?
Are there fill-in-the-blanks answer sheets and workbooks? Is this the kind of work your child would find interesting and benefit from doing?
Is the curriculum integrated and does the “big picture” make sense?
Are all subjects areas covered or are math and reading the primary focus of the day?

Social-Emotional Growth and Setting Behavioral Expectations

How does the school address social-emotional issues?
Does the school have specific guidelines and programs in place for helping children develop communication skills and work through social conflicts? Ask the school to describe their approach.
Is this practiced consistently throughout the school in every instance and with every staff member?
Is it strength based? Does the approach encourage internal motivation and self-discipline or is it focused on external rewards and punishments? Consider whether this will work for your child.

What are the discipline and homework policies?
Many schools have specific disciplinary rules involving everything from “time outs,” to meeting with the principal, to expulsion. Ask for specifics and consider if they will work for your child and for you.

Also, inquire about homework rules and regulations. What happens if children forget their homework or doesn't complete it?


 How balanced is the curriculum? Look for schools that balance the three A’s: academics, athletics,
and the arts.
Find out how often students have recess, physical activity time and opportunities for art and music, and if specific classes, ask what they do in those classes.

When and how long is recess? How much time do children get to spend outside each day? What about recess during inclement weather?

 More Questions to Ask 


 What’s the approach toward grades?
Does the school use letters grades like A, B or C, a point system, pass/fail, or narrative evaluations? What kind of work is graded — homework, tests, projects?
Consider whether this approach will motivate your child to succeed.

Library and Technology

 Is the library inviting and well-used? What kinds of books are on the shelves? How often do students visit? What do they learn when they go there?

What types of technology do students have access to? Where and when is it used?
How much screen time per day?
Is there a clear explanation of the goals of using the technology?

Extra-curricular Activities

What kinds of extra-curricular classes are offered and who gets to do them?
Are these activities the same as what’s offered during the school day or are they exciting, hands on, and truly enriching?
Are these activities offered to everyone? Would your child enjoy them?

Parent Involvement

How do parents get involved in the school?  How often are there meetings?
Can parents volunteer in the classroom?
If you do volunteer, what kinds of activities can parents help with?
And will you get to work with your child?


How is information communicated to parents?
How do teachers and the administration keep parents informed? Is there a good newsletter? Is e-mail used to communicate with teachers?
How often do parents meet with their child’s teacher and how long are these meetings?
Are teachers available for additional meetings if needed?

 Before You Leave

 Ask for materials.
All schools will give out some materials but ask for specifics like class schedules, rule books, homework samples, newsletters, and policy statements.
And then read them.
These materials will offer specifics that tours don’t tell you — and help you determine if this is the right place for you.

I often tell families finding the right school is kind of like dating, you need to put yourself out there and get to know whats available before you find the perfect match.

I wish every child and family success in finding the perfect learning community for them!

Monday, June 15, 2015

We're All in This Together: The Lower Elementary Class Explores How Everything and Everyone is Interconnected

On Earth Day, April 22, the lower elementary class embarked on a nearly two-month-long series of lessons, activities, and projects that could be entitled ‘We’re All in This Together: How Everything and Everyone is Interconnected’—an interdisciplinary mixture of elementary-level ecology, economics, mathematics, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy. The series consisted of three parts that built upon and cross-referenced each other, focusing on (1) ecological interconnections between human beings, other living organisms, and the environment as a whole, (2) economic interconnections between people and nature, and (3) human needs of survival and well-being. The following is an account of what we did, learned, discussed, and pondered. As you will see, it’s long, but it represents only a fraction of what we covered overall.

Part One 
In part one of the series, we looked at the causes and effects of global warming and the basic principles of ecosystems, food chains, and energy pyramids, along with some related phenomena with fancy names such as bioaccumulation, bioamplification, and global distillation. To examine food chains and energy pyramids, we began by focusing on an arctic food chain and energy pyramid consisting of ice algae, zooplankton, cod, seals, and polar bears, which established a model through which we could examine the phenomena mentioned above. 

We were able to make abstract concepts more concrete and break them down into chains of easy-to-follow, step-by-step reasoning with the help of some simple materials and activities. For example, to illustrate bioamplification, we laid out pictures of the arctic organisms in an energy pyramid—with lots of ice algae and zooplankton at the bottom trophic (i.e., nutritional energy) levels, fewer cod at the next level, even fewer seals at the next level, and just one polar bear at the very top level (90% of the organisms’ energy is lost as it flows from one trophic level to the next, so less and less energy is available as it moves up the pyramid, which means fewer and fewer organisms can be supported).

We then put little red discs on each picture of ice algae, representing some sort of toxin that the algae had accumulated from its environment (a subsequent lesson and activity on global distillation helped to explain where the toxin could have come from and why it ended up in the arctic in the first place). When the zooplankton consume the ice algae, they consume the toxin too, so it’s transmitted to them. Then the cod eat the zooplankton, which means the toxin transfers once more to the cod, and so forth and so on, all the way up the energy pyramid and its higher trophic levels. Since there are fewer and fewer organisms at each subsequent level, the toxin becomes more and more concentrated in the organisms as it flows higher and higher up the energy pyramid—all the spread out discs we started with converging inside our poor polar bear.

After exploring the arctic food web and energy pyramid, we started applying what we had learned to human beings. We looked at an energy pyramid of agricultural production (just two levels: crops and humans) versus one of meat production (three levels: crops, cows, and humans), seeing how much more farmland it took to feed cows for human consumption than it took to produce an equivalent amount of plant-based calories (because of the energy loss that occurs between the trophic levels of the energy pyramid). 

The numbers are pretty astounding (and they set up some of the children to work out some interesting math problems, such as how many acres of land it would take to feed a population on a meat-based diet versus a plant-based diet). It takes roughly two to five acres of land to feed a single cow, which can provide less than a year’s worth (about 257 days’ worth) of calories for an average adult—whereas the same amount of acres could support twelve to thirty adults per year on a plant-based diet. In the United States, only 27% of crop calories directly feed human beings; a whopping 67% feed livestock, with the remainder going mostly to biofuels.  

To create and maintain all of the millions upon millions of acres of farmland needed to feed the millions upon millions of livestock animals raised for human consumption (e.g., the roughly 30 million beef cows in the United States alone), many trees must be cut down, and land that’s already been deforested must stay deforested, which means less CO2 is being taken out of the atmosphere. Meanwhile, livestock such as cows release tremendous amounts of methane (a greenhouse gas) into the air through belching and passing gas (yes, some of the children liked the latter part of this fact): the equivalent of about 4 tons of CO2 (the common measure of greenhouse gas emissions) per year—around the same amount of damage to the atmosphere that the average car creates per year. Overall, livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions amount to somewhere between the equivalent of 7.5 billion to 32.5 billion tons of CO2 per year (estimates vary and are difficult to calculate), which represents somewhere between 11.8% to 51% of the world’s overall greenhouse gas emissions (with all non-CO2 gasses being translated into CO2 equivalents). 

Of all the contributing factors to global warming, raising livestock for human consumption is one of the most significant ones—but, unfortunately, it’s also one of the factors that gets talked about the least, in part because the topic of food-consumption and its ethical implications makes many people uncomfortable. I recognize that some of them might take issue with my decision to discuss it (in a non-prescriptive manner) with the children, but I felt morally compelled to do so; after all, the children are the ones who are going to have to live with the damage that we’re doing to our planet, and they’re the ones who might be able to reverse and repair it—but you can’t solve a problem if you aren’t even aware of it. 

Part Two
Looking at the nutritional energy required to produce our food provided a segue to looking at the social and natural “energy” (i.e., labor and resources) required to produce them as well. We began our exploration of economic interconnectivity by looking at supply chains for bread (wheat farm -> flour mill -> bakery -> grocery store) and meat (livestock feed farm -> livestock farm -> slaughterhouse -> butcher  -> grocery store), along with the transportation links between each stage of production. 

Then the children split into four groups, each of which explored the supply chain of another product that could figure into the bread supply chain that we had already examined: salt, sugar, bricks, and gas. Each group read through a book about the production of its product, wrote an outline of the supply chain and its stages of production, made a chart to summarize and communicate the latter, and then presented its chart to the rest of the class. 

We linked the four new supply chains to our original bread supply chain, and then we talked about how other supply chains were interconnected with them as well (for example, various machines figured into each supply chain, and each of those machines has a supply chain of its own). If we wanted to, we could take every single component of our supply chains, trace out a supply chain for each of them, and then take every single component of the new supply chains and trace out even more supply chains for them, and so forth and so on. If we kept on going until we’d covered every commodity that human beings produce, we’d end up with a mind-bogglingly complex web of supply chains and distribution networks that would represent the world economy as a whole (more or less, leaving some components of it aside). Growing up and getting a job, we noted, is partially about finding one’s place within this intricate web of economic relationships. 

With the help of some hands-on activities, we also explored the concept of a division of labor, the rationale behind having one, and how it applies to both the economy as a whole, spheres of economic activity within it, and particular workplaces. For example, the children were each given a basket and instructed to fill it with 15 different objects that were laid out on tables. The initial way in which the children went about doing this was a bit chaotic and inefficient. We talked about and experimented with different ways of applying the concept of a division of labor to make the process more orderly and efficient, refining our approach until we struck upon the idea of making the baskets via an assembly line, which more than halved the amount of time it took to produce them. 

At first, we did this for a just about a minute at a time (we got our time down to about 50 seconds to produce 15 baskets filled with 15 different objects), which many of the children enjoyed, but then we did it for ten minutes straight, so the children could get a little taste of what working on an actual assembly line might be like, which they didn’t enjoy as much. They were then asked to extrapolate from this experience and imagine working on an assembly line for 12 hours per day (the average workday for someone working on an iPhone assembly line). 

We watched some videos of actual assembly lines for products such as iPads, shoes, and cars. One of the more sobering videos was of a small factory in Asia that was engaged solely in the production of little stuffed animals for a certain fast-food chain that shall remain anonymous. The children were asked to imagine working long hours every single day, doing the same thing over and over again on an assembly line, just to produce cheap toys that other children in richer societies would receive with their fast-food meals, spend five minutes caring about, and then toss aside. 

This brought up the dark-side of divisions of labor in general and assembly lines in particular: yes, they’re efficient—but they’re efficient at producing goods for consumers, not necessarily well-being for workers, and there’s a certain amount of tension and trade-off between achieving the two objectives (at least so long as economic production depends on human labor; one student brought up the possibility of all production being automated in the future, which then led to the question of what human beings would do with their unlimited free time to avoid boredom—a question asked and explored by none other than John Maynard Keynes in his essay ‘Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren'). 

In its most extreme forms, an assembly line can reduce a human being to an appendage of a machine, repeating the same, highly specific task over and over again, and thereby exercising, developing, and enjoying only a small portion of his or her overall range of human capacities and aspirations. Some of the students’ responses to this were to “get rid of that,” but, they were reminded, the workers in developing nations are relying on “that” for their income. If they didn’t have it, what would they do to survive? There are no easy answers to the questions these topics raise—but that’s usually a sign that they are good topics and questions to think about. 

Part Three
After looking at how various products are made, we asked ourselves “why make all of these products in the first place?” “To make money” was the children’s initial answer—but to make money from products, people need to sell them, and to sell them, other people need to buy them, so why do they buy them? Because people need or want them, the children recognized. Thus we started a series of lessons and activities on the fundamental and higher-order needs of human beings—what they need to survive and be happy. 

Here is where our overall series of lessons, activities, and projects reached its culmination. I have split the following account of it into four sections. The middle sections derive from a couple of posts I wrote on Namaste’s Facebook page; the first and last sections are new. 

We began by looking at the fundamental needs of human beings, both in terms of general categories of things people need in order to survive (e.g., nourishment) and specific examples of ways in which they can fulfill those needs (e.g., bread, vegetables, meat, etc.). The categories that the students identified were nourishment, housing, transportation, communication, and healthcare, and they came up with numerous examples of ways in which human beings can and have fulfilled these needs, both in the past and present. 

We then noted how for some of the categories (e.g., communication and transportation), human beings could, in theory, fulfill their needs without the help of external, technological aids: to move from point A to point B, a person could just walk, and to communicate with another person, he or she could just talk. However, as we further noted, the ability of walking and talking to fulfill our transportation and communication needs depends upon the proximity of one’s destination and interlocutor. 

To move or communicate across long distances, we need the help of technological aids (e.g., cars and cellphones), which augment our capabilities and the ways in which we can fulfill our needs. In societies in which people need to engage in such movement and communication to be active, integrated members of their social environments, such aids become necessities for them. Thus, while human needs are largely universal and innate on one level (e.g., because of our biology, all human beings need nourishment—cavemen and modern humans alike), on another level they are historically and socially contingent and constructed (e.g., cavemen and modern humans fulfill their nutritional needs in very different ways—e.g., depending on hunting and gathering versus depending on industrial agriculture and a complex network of supply chains). 

Of course, we talked about all of this in terms that were developmentally appropriate to six to nine year-olds, but this was the gist of our conversation, translated into more adult language. By the end of the conversation, we were already getting into pretty advanced (especially for young children) intellectual territory. In subsequent lessons and activities, we went even further. 

The class then turned from the fundamental needs of survival to the higher-order needs of happiness. First, the children came up with examples of higher-order needs and the things that can fulfill them: friends, pets, love, chairs, flowers, candles, sports, board games, painting--the list went on and on. Then they organized the examples into groups of needs and things that went together.

Next they thought and talked about what the underlying commonalities were between the examples in each group--homing in on category names that would unite them all. Ultimately, they identified them as recreation, comfort, and companionship. (Some examples fell outside these categories; we acknowledged that there were more than these three, and that we would look at some of them later on).

The focus of the activity wasn't just getting the "right answers" about which examples went into which categories; it was why they went into those categories in the first place--the logic behind their categorization. The children were asked to explain, refine, and defend their reasoning.

After identifying the categories, the children came up with more examples that fit into them. In doing so, they were following a pattern that we often follow in the lower elementary: starting with the concrete (particular examples), moving to the abstract (general concepts that unite the examples), and then moving back down to the concrete--but this time approaching it with the help of the concepts reached in the previous step (identifying more examples that illustrate the concepts). Sometimes we repeat this process a few times, refining the concepts and our understanding of how the examples relate to them further and further as we go.

The children did all of this with the help of little notecards, on which they wrote their examples. The cards help us to organize and rearrange the examples into groupings on the fly.

Continuing its exploration of human needs, and repeating the same procedure as before, the lower elementary class then came up with more examples of fundamental needs of survival, higher-order needs of happiness, and the various people, living beings, places, events, and things that can fulfill them. The categories that the children arrived at this time were security, creativity, nature, education, psychological health, and meaning.

The creativity, meaning, and psychological health categories yielded particularly interesting examples and discussions. We talked about how examples of creativity include not just artistic pursuits such as visual art and music, but also vocations such as architecture and computer programming. Then we talked about how religion is one of the main ways that many people find meaning in their lives, but also how there are other, non-religious ways of finding it. The children’s examples of psychological health needs included peace, quiet, concentration, self-love, travel, feeling capable, and working. We also noted how there are interesting overlaps between the categories. For example, creativity is one of the keys to finding meaning in life and maintaining psychological health—the latter two of which are also closely connected as well.

By this point, the children had come up with 15 categories of human needs and over 200 examples of them, which we laid out on a long series of rugs.  

Rounding off its exploration of human needs, the lower elementary class further examined three of the categories of higher-order needs that it previously identified: education, psychological health, and meaning. The first examples that came to mind with education, of course, were school, school-work, and the various academic subjects, but we went on to recognize that our need to learn has a much broader scope, encompassing social, communicational, emotional, personal, practical, creative, and non-academic (at least in the traditional sense) intellectual skills, understanding, and knowledge. We also talked about why we need to learn in the first place: compared to most other animals, we come into the world with a relative lack of instincts to do the things we need to do to survive and be happy; we don’t know how to walk, talk, calculate, build, etc., so we have to learn how to do them. 

For psychological health, the children initially focused on very specific examples of ways to achieve and maintain it, but the subsequent discussion that we had about them helped us to make some insightful generalizations. For example, one child identified gardening as being conducive to psychological health, and when asked why, she said there was something deeply satisfying about seeing her own plants grow and enjoying the fruits of her labor, and something calming and centering about the activity itself. Part of the reason for this, we noted, was that when you're doing an activity like gardening, your mind and body become focused on the task at hand, which fills you with a clear sense of purpose and allows you to disentangle yourself from all the thoughts and emotions that might be swirling around in your head; they fade away as you become immersed in the activity, providing you with an invigorating respite from the other concerns of life and leaving you refreshed (and therefore more ready to tackle them). As we noted, similar things can be said of the children’s other examples, such as cleaning, exercising, reading, and playing. 

Finally, we talked about finding meaning in life. Of course, this is a rather esoteric topic even for adults, let alone young children, but we were able to broach it through some simple activities and reflections. For example, first the children were asked to walk around the classroom, without any further instructions. After aimlessly wandering around for a couple minutes, we reconvened and talked about how the experience felt. “Boring” and “a waste of time” were some of the descriptions. Then the children repeated the same activity, but this time, they were instructed to walk as silently as possible. After a little while, further complications were added, such as counting by 3s and rubbing one’s head and stomach at the same time, while continuing to walk silently. This was a more interesting, meaningful-feeling activity, the children said, because it was more challenging and there was a goal, which made it seem more purposeful. These were two of the hallmarks of meaningful (i.e., worthwhile-feeling) activities, we noted; they tend to be challenging, and they tend to have goals. 

In a similar manner, we went on to identify connection to other human beings and doing good (making others happy and/or the world a better place) as two other hallmarks of meaningful activities. We encapsulated all of these hallmarks of meaningfulness in the acronym CGCG (challenge, goal, connection, and [doing] good), noting how meaningful activities tend to exhibit one or more of these characteristics (and the more they exhibit them, the more they tend to feel meaningful). 

After coming up with more examples of things that help us to feel that we’re doing something meaningful with our lives, we related them back to our CGCG-framework. “Finishing the whole book of Harry Potter,” “doing a big math problem,” “making new friends,” “making a poster for a benefit,” “going to a funeral,” “winning a basketball game,” “finishing building a house,” and “graduating college” were some of the children’s examples, and we talked about whether they were primarily about being challenging, accomplishing goals, connecting with other people, doing good, or representing some combination thereof. 

Previously, religion was one of the main examples that the children came up with for finding meaning in life, and we talked about this in terms of our CGCG-framework. Religion, we noted, helps people to find meaning in their lives on a larger scale than activities like the examples listed above; whereas the latter help people to find meaning within the temporary contexts of particular activities, religion helps them find it in their lives-in-general. Part of the way it does so is by making them feel connected to their religious communities and by setting all sorts of general and particular goals for their lives—goals that tend to be challenging to accomplish and oriented toward doing good (at least ostensibly and in the mind of the believer). 

However, as we also noted, there are plenty of non-religious ways that people can find such larger scale meaning in their lives; pursuing personal passions and championing causes were the main ones that we identified, and the children—on their own, with just a little adult help with articulating their ideas—came up with all sorts of wonderful examples, from pursuing the study of birds (can you guess who said this?) to stopping global warming, protecting endangered animals, curing cancer, and ending sexism, racism, hunger, lack of healthcare, homelessness, and poverty. 

Taking the cause of curing cancer as an example, we began to conclude our discussion by bringing it home to the children. "What could you do right now to help with curing cancer?”, they were asked. A little, but not a whole lot, was the gist of their answer; they could raise some money for cancer research, for example, but they recognized that the impact of this would be limited. But then they were asked to imagine “what if you grow up and study biology and medicine when you go to college? What could you do to help cure cancer then?” A lot more, the children realized; one of them could even be directly involved in finding a cure. 

This realization led us to some of our final conclusions: part of the point of education is to enable the children to become capable of pursuing bigger and more challenging goals—becoming more deeply and broadly connected with other people, finding their places in society, and having a larger impact on the world in the process—all of which will make their lives more meaningful. 

In the end, a simple, crudely drawn diagram summarized the “take home point” of our discussions: on one side of a whiteboard, I drew a stick figure baby crawling on the ground. On the other side, I drew a big stick figure representing each child as a young adult. In between, I drew an arrow representing the intervening passage of time. “What are you doing between here [the baby] and here [the adult] I asked?” Growing up, the children answered. “But are you growing up just physically?” I asked. No, the children answered, and we identified the other ways in which they are developing: intellectually, socially, emotionally, morally, personally and creatively. The children’s task in life is to grow up in all of these ways, I noted, and Montessori is designed to aid them in accomplishing that task, on all the levels on which they must do so (not just a small subset of areas within intellectual development, which is what traditional education reductively focuses on). 

This task represents the most challenging goal a human being can pursue—and by pursuing it, one becomes more and more connected with other people and capable of doing good in the world. For the children (and, I would argue, adults as well), education (in this broadest and deepest of senses) is therefore the key to living a meaningful life and finding happiness, both now and in the future.

For me, there was something very poetic about this final discussion of ours, because as we were talking about the children developing into adults, I felt myself coming of age as a teacher—a profession that is much more than a job for me, as Montessori education has become one of my primary passions and causes in life. For the first time in my young career, I felt fully at home in my role, and the children seemed to sense it too, on some level. Our series of activities and discussions ended up going on for two hours (far longer than I had intended), but the children were engaged, respectful, and thoughtful the entire time, more so than I have ever seen them before—some of the more reticent children fully opening up and freely sharing their thoughts for the first time.   

In some ways, it felt more like a college-level seminar than an elementary classroom, and it was one of the most intellectually stimulating experiences I’ve had since leaving university. When we finished, I felt proud of myself for having been able to conduct such a lesson and series of activities, and I felt even more proud of the children for having risen to the occasion—children whom I have had the privilege of working with over the past two years, children who I have seen grow up in all sorts of marvelous ways in that relatively short span of time, and children who were reaching a new level of maturity before my very eyes as we rounded off our exploration of what they need to be happy and fulfilled. 

As I often tell both parents and children, people can’t grow as human beings without being challenged. I’m not going to lie; some of you—parents and children alike—can be challenging to work with at times (though I’m sure you could say the same of me), and the past two years have been among the most challenging years of my life. But I am grateful to all of you—not in spite of the challenges that you have given to me, but partly because of them. Having tackled them and found my voice as a teacher in the process, I have grown tremendously over the past two years—not just professionally but also personally. And I think that this is perhaps the most wonderful aspect of Montessori education: the growth that it strives to foster is a two-way street—the adults gaining as much from the children as the children gain from them. That’s why we describe our school as being more than a school; that’s why we describe it as a community: a group of people living, working, playing, and laughing together—and sometimes inevitably crying, arguing, and fighting in the process—but ultimately overcoming our differences, coming together, and growing up as human beings, both individually and collectively. 

The community of Namaste Montessori School has helped to shape me as a young adult in more ways than I can describe. I hope to stay connected with it as Maria and I pursue our adventures in Scotland—for although I am excited about the path ahead of us, I will miss the children terribly. But no matter what happens, I know that all of you will always be in my heart, and that I will carry your imprint with me wherever I go. I wouldn’t be who I’ve become without you, and for that, I am eternally grateful. 

Thank you for everything and everyone,
Daniel Rose 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Upper Elementary Classroom at Work...

A day in the Upper Elementary classroom is filled with joyful, collaborative learning. Students balance freedom with responsibility in a learning community that focuses on respect.

In our classrooms students learn the language of Math using concrete materials that visually demonstrate the concepts. Through practice they make the journey toward abstraction and mastery in a pace that is comfortable for each individual student.

Students work together with adult classroom guides and uncover the elegant patterns of numbers.

Here students are conducting some chemistry experiments exploring acids and bases. After learning to identify an acid and a base, first by taste and later using a ph indicator, students are determining which types of acids work best to clean pennies--vinegar, lemon juice, soda pop....

Listening to The Story of the World and engaging multiple senses while learning.

Taking a quiet moment to loose yourself in a good story is always a great way to balance your morning.

Students meet regularly with the adults in the classroom to review work completed, collaboratively evaluate progress, and set future learning goals.

Technology is a useful tool when used in balance with hands on learning. Here a student is using Rosetta Stone to learn German.

Learning should always feel comfortable....our school is a home away from home.

Checking out the gourds in our garden.

Studying illuminated letters and practicing calligraphy.

What is one way to calculate the surface area of a sphere? How about flattening it?

A trip to Cornell's Johnson Museum of Art to study Medieval Art. So very grateful for the incredibly resources we have in our community and the TCAT bus system that takes us there.

Working on illuminated manuscripts at the Johnson.