Community-supported Agriculture and TNCS

The New Century School families recently got an email from Chef Emma Novashinski, detailing a CSA (community-supported agriculture) share program offered by One Straw Farm in Whitehall, MD. This is TNCS’s second year participating in the CSA; Chef Novashinski is hoping to garner enough support to make TNCS a drop-off point again in 2013. TNCS needs a total of 10 shares to be a drop-off location, and One Straw Farm throws in a bonus share for the school to use if we make that number. Chef Novashinski relies on locally sourced produce in her school lunch program, so the extra share would go right into TNCS students’ tummies! Visit her Garden Tuck Shop facebook page to see a gallery of her marvelous lunches.

Why CSA? 

For readers unfamiliar with what CSA is and how it works, Wikipedia defines it as, “an alternative, locally-based economic model of agriculture and food distribution . . . CSA members or subscribers pay at the onset of the growing season for a share of the anticipated harvest; once harvesting begins, they receive weekly shares of vegetables and fruit [etc.] . . .” Or, as the very funny and very quotable Joan Norman (co-owner of One Straw Farm with husband Drew) boils it down, “You give me money, and I give you food.” Paying for this food subscription service up front tells the farmer how much to plant, thereby reducing waste and keeping the farm solvent. The customers save money and eat more “vegetables, glorious vegetables” than they otherwise might. Everybody wins.

And then there’s the contrast between most grocery store produce and locally sourced produce. Consider that produce grown in California might get picked on a Monday, crosses the country and lands in the supermarket Friday, gets put behind the older goods already on the shelf Saturday, and is eventually purchased by you the following Monday or so. By the time it reaches your refrigerator, the two qualities we look for in food have been degraded dramatically—the taste and the nutritive content. All of which begs the question, why are we eating this??? CSA, on the other hand, is as fresh as you’re going to get (unless you’re growing it yourself), with flavor and nutrients at their peaks.

Chef Novashinski adds a couple more dimensions to this issue. She strongly believes that what is growing in your particular environment is what is best for you to eat. So, if it’s rhubarb and asparagus being harvested in central Maryland now, that’s what central Marylanders should be eating. Leave the corn and tomatoes for summer, when they’re in season here. She is also personally a shareholder. “I like it,” she says, “because I already eat local food, but this way I get my Saturdays back. I don’t have to go to the Farmer’s Market, I can go to the pool. They’ve picked the best stuff for me.” Very practical!

Why One Straw Farm?

One Straw Farm

One Straw Farm

Located on 350 gently rolling acres near the Maryland/Pennsylvania border, One Straw Farm is Food Alliance certified since 2010, meaning that they adhere to sustainability standards and guarantee food integrity (i.e., no genetically  engineered or artificial ingredients) and is the largest such vegetable farm in Maryland. They boast some prestigious customers, too, on the basis of these important principles. Popular farm-to-table Baltimore restaurant Woodberry Kitchen is one, and the relationship seems to be working out quite well for them. (In fact, it was announced this month that chef and owner Spike Gjerde is the only Baltimore chef to become a 2013 James Beard Award Finalist. The winner, chosen from an elite pantheon of only five mid-atlantic chefs, will be announced May 6th. Go Spike!)

Says Joan Norman: “If you learn nothing else, know where your food comes from. I’m liable to the people who buy my food. I will grow you the safest food I can.”

The Deets on the Beets

The available bounty ranges from onions, peppers, lettuces, chard, kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc. to herbs—rosemary, oregano, thyme, chives, cilantro, parsley, etc.—and fruit, such as raspberries, strawberries, watermelon, and gorgeous varieties of heirloom tomatoes.

Greenhouse veg

These vegetables are started in the greenhouse and transplanted to the fields 6–8 weeks later.

Starting in June and running through November, on a set day of the week, “shareholders” get 8 pieces of 3–6 items, primarily vegetables (for example, 1 head of lettuce, 3 cucumbers, 1 watermelon, a bunch of herbs, and maybe a few tomatoes). This year we get an extra week, totaling 25 weeks of locally, sustainably grown produce. The cost is $600 (remember to sign up early next year to receive a discount), which is only $24 per week. CSA makes eating right so easy; click here for a chart of what’s harvested when.

Becoming a Shareholder

If you’re like many of us, you might be wondering how you could manage a weekly share in your household. Common questions are: What if I don’t like what I get? Can I possibly eat all that produce each week? After thinking hard about purchasing a share myself, this writer just had to see the farm and learn about CSA from those experienced in this business. So, a day after Baltimore’s surprise Spring snowstorm, I drove up to One Straw Farm to meet Joan and Drew as well as my future food. Joan drove me around in a four-wheeler and showed me everything, “from the ground up,” as it were. It was amazing. We munched red leaf lettuce growing right at our feet, smelled handfuls of rich black compost (surprisingly pleasant!), and talked farming. We were often accompanied by Easy, one of the Normans’ Labrador Retrievers, whose favorite toy is a bucket. Easy and bucket must come in very handy at harvest time.

I learned that unbeknownst to the Normans when they bought the farm back in 1983, the land had once belonged to Drew’s great-grandfather. Talk about serendipity! I learned that the name One Straw Farm derives from the book One Straw Revolution, a manifesto that unites the practice of sustainability with the philosophy of common sense by a Japanese scientist-turned-farmer. I also learned that the 75–80 acres of food crops are lovingly hand-tilled at least once each year. Their full-time crew consists of between 20 and 25 people, most of whom are more like family than employees. But the, uh, “meat” of the conversation was veggies. “I love growing food for people,” says Joan. “I love helping kids eat vegetables and giving them that advantage.”

Tricks of the Trade

Both Joan Norman and Chef Novashinski also have plenty of helpful tips for how to use your share. There are lots of creative recipes on the One Straw Farm website, for example, for dishes like Kale Enchiladas (the kale is the wrapper—ingenious!). Chef Novashinski also encourages getting creative when you find yourself with leftover produce. You can add a little sugar and vinegar to almost anything and make jams, jellies, chutneys, or piccalillies, she says. “Instead of wasting it, experiment with it—what have you got to lose?” Other suggestions are to make juices and to “share your share”: give food gifts to your friends and family. The bottom line is, she says, “access to organic, home-cooked food is better for us.”

TNCS needs just four more sign-ups to qualify as a drop-off site. Sign up for your share here (make sure to mention that you’re associated with TNCS) or email Chef Novashinski.

Elementary Science Fair!

During the month of March, the elementary students at The New Century School undertook an exciting new collaborative adventure  . . . (drumroll please) . . . The Science Fair! They did two projects, one in English and one in Spanish (not yet complete). Taste the Rainbow, the first of their projects, will be the focus of this post.

Taste the Rainbow

The Scientific Method

The scientific method drives the whole experiment!

First learning about the Scientific Method, the kids next brainstormed about what topic they wanted to investigate. The story goes that one curious young fellow, upon discovering that multi-hued Rainbow Blast Goldfish® taste no different than run-of-the-mill Goldfish snacks, surmised that perhaps he had expected a difference in taste due to the difference in appearance. Other kids realized that they too had experienced similar disappointments with certain candies; one student described how once she had been enticed by the pretty pink color of a piece of candy only to find that it was “disgusting” when tasted. (We’ve all been there—boxes of chocolates often contain a stinker or two, belied by their beguiling exterior. It’s an age-old injustice.) As elementary teacher Mrs. DuPrau explained, “We begin the scientific method by asking a question.” So the kids had to next figure out how to formulate their idea as a question to be answered.

Elementary class

The class (minus a couple of students) poses with their teacher and their project board.

Let’s see how our little scientists did it!

Question

Can our eyes fool our taste buds? Can the color of a food or drink affect a person’s perception of its taste?

Objective

This project looks at whether people’s view of what something tastes like will be changed by what they see.

Hypothesis

We think colors can fool our taste buds at times. (Note the sophistication of their qualifier “at times.” Not easily taken in, this group.)

Materials

  • Three containers of white grape juice
  • One pitcher of water
  • Red and green food coloring
  • 78 small, plastic cups
  • 26 test subjects
  • Paper
  • Pencil

Procedure

  1. With the food coloring, dye one container of juice red and one container of juice green.
  2. Pour a couple of inches of juice into each cup so that you have 26 cups of red juice, 26 cups of green juice, and 26 cups of uncolored juice.
  3. Place one cup of each color of juice in front of your subject.
  4. Ask your subject to taste the red juice and tell you what flavor it is.
  5. Ask your subject to taste the green juice and tell you what flavor it is.
  6. Ask your subject to taste the uncolored juice and tell you what flavor it is.
  7. Record their answers.
  8. Repeat steps 3 to 7 for all of your subjects.
  9. Analyze your results.

(Note: subjects were not told ahead of time specifically what they were going to be participating in.)

Results

Note that as long as a subject identified each sample as tasting the same, that subject was considered “not fooled.” So, even if he or she labeled the juice apple instead of grape, for example, if all three were apple, that subject was not duped by the variation in color, which was the main point of the study. Also, even though the professional students kept their subjects anonymous, we can’t help but let the readers in on a little secret—our Head of School was one of those whose eyes fooled their taste buds! Shhh . . .

Conclusion

Through this experiment we learned that some people’s taste buds can be fooled by their eyes. Not everyone was fooled; however, most were, especially children under the age of 6. Seventeen out of twenty-six subjects were fooled. Out of the twenty-six subjects, nineteen were children 6 years old and under and seven were adults. More children were fooled than adults. Fourteen out of nineteen children were fooled, and three out of seven adults were fooled. In conclusion, beware because sometimes your eyes can fool your taste buds.

This project is a real winner—and the kids did it all themselves, including the typing and graphics for the project board. The Spanish project will be next, which our multilingual investigators are conducting entirely in Spanish. This one involves las plantas, so stay tuned.

Standardized Testing: It’s Time to Talk About It

The heartbreaking paradox exists in U.S. public education that conscientious teachers want students to think and to learn during the time they spend together, yet those same teachers must produce a sufficient proportion of students who can pass standardized tests. As the ill-starred students graduate without having learned much beyond how to choose A, B, C, or D, it’s becoming increasingly evident that real learning and overemphasis on test-taking are mutually exclusive. In “Warnings from the Trenches”, originally published in Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors, former Maryland public school Social Studies teacher Kenneth Bernstein describes it like this:

“We entered teaching because we wanted to make a difference in the lives of the students who passed through our classrooms. Many of us are leaving sooner than we had planned because the policies already in effect and those now being implemented mean that we are increasingly restricted in how and what we teach.”

Remember the dread that this box of pencils could inspire?

Remember the dread that this box of pencils could inspire?

Federal policies such as 2001’s No Child Left Behind and 2009’s Race to the Top squeeze teachers into ever narrower pigeonholes while the students languish uninspired before seas of multiple choice bubbles waiting to be filled in (No. 2 pencil, please). NCLB mandated that states implement reading and math standards then measure student progress in those areas with annual testing in grades 3 through 8. Schools, moreover, are also measured against each other and “graded” on number of students meeting the standards. Due to the rigors imposed by these well-meant (insofar as originally intended to help disadvantaged students by leveling the academic playing field) but ultimately disastrous policies, teachers often face no choice but to “teach to the test.” If it’s not on a standardized test, it will probably fall to the wayside. Goodbye, foreign languages. So long, art. See ya later, music.

Those three things just listed have other important common characteristics besides being unlikely to show up on standardized tests: first, they are emphasized at The New Century School; second, they are noted for cultivating higher-order creative and critical thinking skills. Standardized tests, by contrast, are widely criticized as setting impossibly high stakes, creating a climate of cheating, and being of such poor quality and design that they don’t allow students to demonstrate what they may have actually learned. Some say these tests threaten to turn kids into a generation of mindless drones rather than intellectually curious, well-adjusted people who can think on their feet—you know, human beings.

Standardized Testing’s Negative Effects

Stemming from such adversity, “Warnings from the Trenches” was written as an address to college-level educators. Bernstein says to them,

“The structure of [elementary] testing has led to students arriving at [high] school without what previously would have been considered requisite background knowledge . . . Now you are seeing the results in the students arriving at your institutions. They may be very bright. But we have not been able to prepare them for the kind of intellectual work that you have every right to expect of them. It is for this that I apologize, even as I know in my heart that there was little more I could have done. Which is one reason I am no longer in the classroom.”

Reading this lament is unsettling enough, but the distress only grows when you consider the clear implication that the problem originates in elementary school but impacts a student’s entire academic career. When Bernstein’s article was reprinted in the Washington Post‘s The Answer Sheet last month, comments poured in from instructors who had similar experiences. One college professor writes:

” . . .Within the first two weeks of each semester, I can identify students who were home-schooled or who attended private high schools. Why? Because they participate in class discussions. Because they can apply theory in meaningful ways. Because they can find examples that exemplify those theories in the world at large. Because they can write a proper sentence and a proper paragraph. Publicly schooled kids, for the most part, can’t do any of those things.”  

It’s clear: uncritical use of standardized testing has deleterious effects on both teacher and student. A pilot study compiled by the UCLA Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing reported that at their worst, standardized tests:

  • Narrow and trivialize the curriculum. The focus of instruction shifts to easily assessed fragments of topics and away from significant or broad knowledge acquisition.
  • Exclude topics and skills not likely to appear on the test. Computer skills, long-term or collaborative projects, and even science at the lower grades get pushed out of curricula. (Notably, this finding was specifically from Maryland schools.)
  • Reduce learning to rote memorization of basic facts. Higher-order thinking skills get short shrift insofar as multiple-choice formats don’t require organization and composition of ideas or words to be answered.
  • Demand too much classroom time for test preparation. One study found that test prep occupied 10% of overall elementary class time.
  • Restrict how teachers teach. To prepare students for the testing environment, teachers often evaluate in-class work with a test-like, worksheet-like format—drilling.
  • Reduce time spent with individual students as well as instructional differentiation. One size fits all. It’s standardized, after all.
  • Exclude the student’s say in his or her own education. Gone is choice, guided exploration, and intellectual curiosity. Kids (and teachers) have to “stick to the program.”

And that’s not even taking into consideration the mental and physical health problems brought on by the stress of high-stakes testing. Kids exhibit gastrointestinal upset and regressive behavior, while teachers fight stress headaches in the days and hours leading up to the dreaded Test Time. NCLB also precipitated a rather ironic outcome: 19 states lowered their academic standards in order to show better test scores. No wonder, then, that in 2012 the United States ranked only 17th out of 49 countries in education. Worse, most other countries were showing improvements in academic matrices, whereas the United States’ performance was described as “hardly remarkable.” Ouch!

An example of Maryland's 3rd-grade standardized reading test.

An example of Maryland’s 3rd-grade standardized reading test.

An example of Maryland's 3rd-grade standardized math test.

An example of Maryland’s 3rd-grade standardized math test.

TNCS’s Approach to Standardized Testing

At TNCS, as the elementary program grows, standardized testing looms in the near future. The 2013–2014 school year will accommodate students through 4th grade. Public schools starting at 3rd grade in our state are subject to the Maryland School Assessment (MSA) to comply with the federal NCLB act. Being an independent school affords much more flexibility as well as choice in this matter, fortunately for TNCS.

Lest we throw the baby out with the bath water, it’s important to remember that schools need a means of assessing their curricula and the implementors of those curricula as well as student performance. The above criticisms apply to the worst-case scenario. What a carefully considered assessment situation can offer is a reliable way to evaluate academic achievement and to maintain school accountability without sacrificing core values. So, although we’re probably stuck with standardized testing in some form, rest assured parents—school administrators vow that TNCS elementary instruction will never deteriorate to teaching to the test. Though the standards are certainly covered, “[We are] committed to providing each child the opportunity to become an independent, secure, and balanced human being. Each child cultivates his or her natural intellectual curiosity while developing leadership skills and the ability to think critically. We embrace the individual and design developmentally appropriate activities and lessons to engage and enrich.” Many such engaging and enriching activities have been profiled in this blog, such as learning Mandarin and Spanish. Learning foreign languages is key to developing the problem-solving skills that so many students currently lack (see Multilingualism at TNCS: Optimizing Your Child’s Executive Function). Providing art instruction is another way TNCS cultivates those character skills that some public school curricula sadly can’t begin to address (see The Importance of Being Artistic).

Hope for the Future

It’s also possible that the the current federal administration will continue taking steps to reverse some of the harm to public education done by NCLB. In 2010, the blueprint for reforming the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (of which NCLB is an offshoot) was released but stalled in Congress. The Obama administration countered by giving 34 eligible states plus D.C. the flexibility to expand academic performance measures, such as writing and social studies proficiency. Maryland is one of the states no longer suffocating under the restrictive NCLB measures. We can hope, right?

In the meantime, an “A+” goes to schools like TNCS, committed to providing a well-rounded, progressive education that benefits the whole child, not just the test score.

What do you have to say about this important subject? Please contribute thoughts, questions, and comments. Your participation in this discussion will help TNCS forge the way to a brighter future for elementary education in Baltimore. Our thanks once again to TNCS Enrollment Coordinator Robin Munro for suggesting this worthwhile and very relevant topic.

Imagination Playground Comes to TNCS

“Play is the work of the child,” said Maria Montessori a century ago, and with that simple yet compelling concept, launched a revolution in early childhood education. The Montessori method is often mistakenly faulted for not making room for “imaginative play,” but the converse is actually true, and it’s also why the method is so downright effective. By integrating “work” (i.e., learning) with materials and lessons that children are naturally drawn to, the Montessori method allows kids to do what they do best—play, explore, touch, smell, absorb—but in a constructive, productive way. In other words, they are learning because they want to without even realize it’s happening. It’s sheer genius.

Fast-forward to this century, and an offshoot of this concept has begun to take root: play facilitated by “playworkers.” Playworkers describe (they resist defining it—you’ll see why) play as “a set of behaviors that are freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated.” Activities such as building a sand castle and playing make-believe fit this description, whereas playing Angry Birds on an iPad is something else entirely (no judgment implicit here, parents!). It’s no accident that the playwork model of play sounds a lot like what Dr. Montessori had in mind. Playworkers’ (also called “play associates”) roles are to be the caretakers of the play environment. Unlike the bored, inattentive playground monitor of yore, these are trained adults who oversee an open setting in which children can direct their own play, maintaining a safe, welcoming environment for them.

Trained to what, exactly? Enter Imagination Playground, The New Century School’s latest schoolwide initiative to ensure a happy, adjusted, engaged student body. Launching soon, a focus on constructive play is what makes Imagination Playground a natural fit for TNCS. Says school cofounder Jennifer Lawner, “We will begin using it in the gym space during school hours and also make it available to The Lingo Leap for birthday parties and other activities.”

So What is Imagination Playground, Exactly?

Imagination Playground blocks close-up

A close-up of the foam blocks . . . makes you want to reach out, grab one, and start playing!

The flagship Imagination Playground opened in New York City in 2010; since then, more than 700 Imagination Playground sets have been implemented internationally . . . including right here in Fell’s Point, Baltimore, very soon. To backtrack a bit, Imagination Playground is a “play system that encourages unstructured, child-directed ‘free play.’” It looks like giant Tinker Toys—only soft, on an extremely large scale, and powder blue! Developed by the architectural firm The Rockwell Group, this play system “in a box” (or cart, as the case may be) can be used anywhere, indoors or outdoors, and comprises three key elements:

1. Manipulable Environment: Traditional playgrounds consist of fixed equipment. The experience kids get from swinging or sliding is somehow passive, even though they are actively moving. There is still the element of deriving enjoyment passively rather than having created/designed the experience. Not so here, where kids manipulate the play environment according to their own lights, then do with it what they will.

2. Loose Parts: An assortment of age-appropriate “found parts” can be integrated with the signature blue building blocks to expand on and extend play in new directions.

3. Play Associates: Workers are trained with a specific curriculum developed by KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to “saving play” as well as addressing America’s “play deficit” to properly implement and oversee an Imagination Playground.

According to Imagination Playground website’s FAQs, “This unique combination of elements enables children to create a great new playground each time they visit.” Click here for a video demonstration/profile.

More About the Blocks, Please

These are really the core of the Imagination Playground. The biodegradable foam blocks are nontoxic, cleanable, recyclable, resistant to microorganisms, and nonflammable. They are all blue—no variations are possible. This is to both encourage the use of, that’s right, imagination, rather than getting distracted by colors (or worse, fighting over them) as well as because that color was best received among kid focus groups. The blocks kit includes shapes like “l’il cheeses,” “clover gears,” and “arched chutes.” Are you getting excited yet? This basic kit can enhanced with angles and curves add-on sets to build endless combinations of kid-engineered “playgrounds.” They also promote collaboration among children to build their place space together.

And the Play Associates?

Must be the world’s best job, right? Probably pretty close, though training is a nonnegotiable prerequisite. This job is really more about managing the environment than playing with kids, however. Performing safety checks, setting up and putting away the loose parts, and cleaning the materials are their primary responsibilities, all to enable kids to let their imaginations take them where they will. “Play Associates set up and step back.”

As stated above, Play Associates are a kind of “playworker,” a profession written extensively about by Penny Wilson in the U.K., herself a professional playworker. Together with a nonprofit organization right here in our own backyard, Ms. Wilson and the Alliance for Childhood in College Park, MD aim to “[establish] playwork as a profession in the U.S. . . . [in] its efforts to restore play to children’s lives.” Read their Playwork Primer 2010 here.

Play: Not Something to Mess Around With

In the end, there’s a very serious side to play—not in a bad way, but in terms of the no-nonsense list of benefits that this kind of play yields. Playing with loose and found parts, researchers agree, hones cognitive, creative, and social development. In fact, it is precisely through play that kids develop. By playing, they are actually transforming their dreams into reality as noted pediatrician-turned-psychoanalyst David Winnicott believed and for whom the concept of play was a central motif. Tied to influential architect Simon Nicholson’s Theory of Loose Parts:

“in any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity and the possibility of discovery are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it”

and the fundamental logic of Imagination Playground emerges. Did you watch the video yet? Those parent and education professional testimonials were full of words like “problem-solving,” “engaged,” “higher-level thinking,” “teamwork,” and even “character strengths like grit, resilience, and self-control.” (Remember education researcher/author Paul Tough? One of the NYC school principles he wrote about, Dominic Randolph, is an Imagination Playground advocate and user.) All of these blog themes are really starting to, uh, “connect”!

For a final word on the child’s sheer driving need to play, here is an excerpt from an interview with playworker Penny Wilson in the American Journal of Play:

“It is a common mistake that adults make to think that play is frivolous and fun, a pretty frill of childhood. But play not only develops physical and mental strength and agility, it is the mechanism by which children work out their thoughts and emotions. As adults we struggle to explain and understand ourselves and the things that happen around us. We wrestle with words. For example, I find it very difficult to capture the words I need to explain this thought to you now. Children have exactly the same need to grapple with their thoughts. But they use their playing as their language.”

Please contribute to this dialogue; let us know your thoughts or share an anecdote in the Comments section!

Language, Math, and Science—Montessori Style!

On February 20th, The New Century School hosted a Primary Workshop to provide parents with a firsthand experience of the Montessori approach to pre-K education. This information-filled evening was the second such Primary Workshop of the 2012–2013 school year. Workshops for Pre-primary and Elementary student parents are also held regularly and will be profiled in this blog at future points.

Unlike Open Houses and Information Nights that are general question-and-answer forums, a Workshop’s purpose is to show you specifically what your children are learning and doing during their daily class time. For those parents who did not attend Montessori school as kids, the Primary Workshop is a marvel—both eye-opening and fun. For those who did grow up in a Montessori environment, the chance to reacquaint themselves with the materials must evoke the most delicious nostalgia. Maria Montessori developed the Montessori materials based on her extensive observation of children ages 2 1/2 through 6 years. Her goal was to put academic success within their reach by setting realizable achievement milestones, so to do that, she tailored materials to be used the way she saw children interacting with their world. Primary students use these materials nearly exclusively, and seeing how the materials are actually used and learning what each does for the child’s development was the focus of the Workshop.

The evening was very well organized and executed. Parents were divided into three groups and rotated through classrooms, each featuring a presentation by either Mrs. Lawson, Mr. Sellers, or Mr. Warren. This way, parents got to see a bit of everything as well as interact with Primary teachers they might not have known as well as they do their child’s particular instructor. Montessori Primary education is divided into five distinct categories: Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, Math, and Geography (Science) and Culture. The Fall 2012 Primary Workshop explored the Practical Life and Sensorial components, leaving the remaining three for last week’s Workshop. Each teacher presented lessons to the parent group in much the same way they present lessons to students. Movements are controlled; the pace is unhurried. Thus, the student is given ample time to absorb all aspects of what is happening.

Language

Mr. Sellers presented the Language portion of the Workshop. He described kids’ language acquisition as occurring over three major “explosions.” The first happens at age 12–18 months when babies start naming the elements of their surroundings. At around age 2 years, they begin to use sentences and describe how they feel. The final burst is at age 4–5 years when they begin to acquire reading and writing skills. Thus, they start with very concrete terms and make a series of abstractions to achieve literacy. How this translates to the Montessori classroom involves first making the student aware of the different sounds in a word, progressing to phonetics, and finally to spelling and beyond.

Mr. Sellers calls these “stepping stones into reading” and it’s easy to see how and why this approach is so effective. Over the course of the 3-year Primary cycle, a child would start with sandpaper letters—tracing a form and saying the sound with eyes first open, then closed. From there, the child learns to associate objects that start with a particular letter with the sound. The moveable alphabet, a later step, allows them to assemble letters to make words that correspond to certain objects laid next to the tray of letters.

The metal insets indirectly relate to language development. By tracing the shapes and moving through the progressively more difficult tasks associated with the insets, kids strengthen the hand muscles they need to write.

Parents, Mr. Sellers also included some handy tips for how to continue language development at home. The best we can do for our kids is to read and/or tell stories to them. (This advice is not exclusive to Montessori kids, of course, but it’s still nice to be reminded that our bedtime efforts are going to yield future dividends!) Another important at-home activity is to enrich kids’ vocabulary by identifying things that may be unfamiliar to them, such as all those strange kitchen tools accumulating in the drawer (knew they had to be good for something!). As you explain new words, adds Mr. Sellers, make sure you emphasize the sounds within each words so the child learns correct articulation and enunciation. Language and communication are integral to thought; giving the child the tools to express him or herself will build his or her confidence to communicate—and therefore to think—more effectively.

Math

Montessori math is likewise a progression of lessons from concrete/discrete to abstract. Mr. Warren presented the math materials and described teaching math as “starting with concrete knowledge of numbers and quantity and leading to ever more complex operations like multiplication and division.”

Kids first learn to count from 1-10 and are taught the concept that those numbers represent a specific amount. They make this connection with the number rods and with numeral cards. They sequentially progress through counting with beads to learn units of 10, 100, and 1,000, which teaches them the decimal system in the bargain. By combining the physical materials with these higher-order abstractions, the child will learn addition, subtraction, and on up, yet will have truly absorbed the deeper sense of such operations rather than simply memorizing a set of, say, multiplication tables.

Mr. Warren’s approach to presenting the materials was to use a parent volunteer to walk through a cycle of lessons, who afterward said, “If I had these materials when I was in school, I might still remember how to do long division!” Thanks Mr. Warren, for providing a true hands-on experience!

Geography and Science

Mrs. Lawson introduced the group to Geography and Science. She loves these lessons, she says, because “teaching them gives me the opportunity to learn about other cultures,” adding, “and to keep in touch with my former students who have moved to China and Switzerland.” (We miss them, too, Mrs. Lawson!) She also displays objects from around the world in her classroom to have a physical representation of a particular locale always on hand.

The main reason to begin teaching these topics so young, according to Dr. Montessori, is to help kids develop spatial orientation including the vocabulary to express it (i.e., “up,” “over,” “through,” etc.) because they have such an overwhelming  need for order in their environment. Putting the need together with the tool to fulfill it empowers young kids and gives them the confidence to be students, learners.

Just as with the other Montessori categories, the scientific disciplines are taught in a linear fashion. Here, teachers start with a big picture, such as the world, and move to increasingly smaller geographic units—continents to countries to right here in Baltimore. With biology, kids explore life cycles and habitats. Mrs. Lawson says she continually tries to take kids out of their “comfort zones” by asking questions like, “What is this made of?” to expand their views of their worlds.

A typical activity here might be doing puzzle maps to promote visual recognition of the names and topography of the seven continents and their relationship to each other. They also develop manual control with manipulation of the puzzle pieces. From here, kids advance to push-pinning the outlines of the various land masses and creating their own “maps.”

One take-away from the three-part Workshop was how beautifully all of the materials work together to provide a very complete and absorbing experience. Each one, though developed for a particular discipline, nevertheless encourages the child to use skills and senses from other areas. For example, the water and land mass trays also hone practical life skills (pouring the water from big pitcher to small and to the tray itself) and tune the stereognostic sense (kids touch the land masses and trace the waterway, feeling each form and storing that information away) while teaching fundamental geography. In later school years, a Montessori-educated child confronting the word, “isthmus,” for example, calls forth an immediate and multilayered concept of what that word represents that includes the physical relationship of the land to the water rather than just a memorized definition.

Emerging research has demonstrated the numerous and far-reaching benefits of preschool Montessori education (see “Preschool Conundrum Solved: Research Demonstrates Benefits of Montessori Education”). Seeing the true genius of the Montessori materials so intimately, it’s really no surprise that children derive a very full, well-rounded education by using them.

They are, after all, really made for kids.