Montessori Language Arts, Math, Science, and Global Studies at TNCS

On January 26th, The New Century School hosted a Primary Workshop to provide parents with a firsthand experience of the Montessori approach to pre-K education for students ages 3, 4, and 5 years. This information-filled evening was the second such Primary Workshop of the 2016–2017 school year and covered the second half of the Montessori curriculum—Language Arts, Math, Science, and Global Studies. The Practical Life and Sensorial aspects were covered in the fall workshop.

The workshop’s purpose is to show parents specifically what their 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.

Each primary lead teacher provided an overview of the discipline she was representing, but all four teachers cover all disciplines in their respective classrooms. They began by demonstrating how they present a “lesson” on a given material (a “work”): Movements are controlled and orderly; the pace is decidedly unhurried. Thus, the student is given ample time to absorb all aspects of what is happening. The overriding theme of the evening was that all lessons begin with the simplest concepts and move to increasingly complex ones. The student builds on and deepens understanding this way, rather than merely mimicking or memorizing.

Language Arts

Catherine Lawson presented the Language portion of the Workshop. The Montessori philosophy describes 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. (You may have even noticed that your primary-age student identifies the letter “a,” not by its name but by its sound. This is intentional, and Mrs. Lawson encouraged parents to do so as well. It’s less important for the child to know the name of the letter than to grasp its function.)

These “stepping stones into reading” demonstrate why this approach is so effective. Over the course of the 3-year primary cycle, a child starts 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.

Consonant sounds         Matching letters and objects       Moveable alphabet

Letter Mrs. Lawson says that language acquisition is perhaps the most important facet of child development, enhancing every other aspect. Communication also inherently conveys order—there’s a beginning, middle, and end, which underpins the Montessori approach as well.

She also recommended 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 kitchen tools. As you explain new words, adds Mrs. Lawson, 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.

The primary classroom is also multilingual: Students benefit from having an assistant teacher who is a native speaker of either Spanish or Mandarin Chinese, and these teachers rotate through the four primary classrooms so that all students are regularly exposed to both languages. For more on TNCS’s philosophy on multilingualism, please search the Immersed archives for many posts on the topic, such as TNCS’s Foreign Language Program Embraces the 5 Cs and Multilingual Media for Kids: Explore Beyond Dora; Bid Kai-Lan Farewell!. This article on multilingualism and enhanced learning is also informative.

Math

Number Rods

Students start to understand that numbers are symbolic of quantity with these number rods.

Bead units

They next begin to think in terms of units.

Montessori math is likewise a progression of lessons from concrete/discrete to abstract. Michelle Hackshaw 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.” She repeatedly emphasized the importance of understanding what the numeric symbols represent.

Thousand blocks

To count units, students start with successively larger quantities of beads. Once they have truly made the leap from concrete to abstract, they move to the 1,000 blocks and eventually the alluring “bead frame.”

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.

Science

reptilesamphibiansMaria Mosby handled the Science portion of the workshop. Just as with the other Montessori categories, the scientific disciplines are taught from simple to complex, but here the progression can be less linear, as students are strongly encouraged to discover the natural world, rather than simply be told about it, explained Ms. Mosby. Science tends toward botany and biology, with kids exploring, for example, life cycles and habitats or getting a tactile boost from perusing the sundry contents of the “nature basket.” Ms. Mosby says she uses every opportunity to get kids out of their “comfort zones” by asking questions like, “What is this made of?” to launch various lines of inquiry and expand student’s views of their worlds.

sink-and-floatProbably the favorite activity among the younger primary crowd is the Sink and Float work, in which kids get to pour water (what?) into a vessel and then systematically dunk items (what?) into the vessel to see which will float and which will sink. Montessori is nothing if not kid-friendly!

Global Studies

tncs-primary-workshopLisa Reynolds introduced the group to Global Studies. “These lessons, she says, “give students the opportunity to learn about other cultures.” Primary teachers also display objects from around the world in their classrooms to have a physical representation of a particular locale always on hand.

landwater-formsA 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. Students 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.” Another popular Global Studies activity is learning about the relationships between various types of land masses and water.

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.

Putting It All Together

One takeaway from the four-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.

landwatersinkfloat

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.

For more on the Montessori Method in TNCS primary classrooms, view primary-workshop_january-26-2017.

Finally, Head of School Alicia Danyali, who also introduced and opened the workshop, closed by illuminating another unifying thread of the Montessori curriculum and, indeed, TNCS as a whole: tolerance, kindness, respect. These qualities inform what Mrs. Danyali calls TNCS’s “invisible curriculum,” which, despite the lack of rubrics to measure individual progress by, is felt in every part of TNCS operations. If it’s hard to visualize young children exemplifying these traits deliberately, come watch a TNCS primary classroom in real time, where you’ll see students seamlessly migrating from work station to work station, helping one another, and above all respecting the space they are in as well as the other members of their harmonious community.

Baltimore Communities Unite and Engage in the Face of Change

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Disclaimer: This post is first and foremost about social, not political, issues and is not intended to offend any group of any kind. 

It’s Friday, January 13, 2017 on a mild winter evening in southeast Baltimore. On this date frequently associated with superstition and bad luck, city residents are convening at Highlandtown Elementary/Middle School to reverse the trend. “Organizing at the Local Level” was an auspicious, not an unlucky, occasion, and, whether deliberate or not, this community meeting also closely coincided with another important date: what would have been Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 88th birthday.

This year, MLK Day resonates with particular significance. As the nation comes to terms with an incoming federal administration and the sweeping policy changes it will bring, many people are facing profound uncertainty about the course their lives will take in the near future. For some, 2017 feels like a reversal of progress, something unprecedented in the last century of United States history. We have tried to continually move forward, not backward, and to tighten our embrace of many of Dr. King’s social principles. One pillar of his ideology is community, or agape, the Greek word for love of humanity.

For Dr. King,

Agape is disinterested love. It is a love in which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. It is an entirely ‘neighbor-regarding’ concern for others.

In Baltimore City, residents strive to mend communities and neighborhoods, and progress has been seen and felt throughout the city, temporary setbacks notwithstanding and certainly not extinguishing our collective hope. But, as newly elected Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen described it, many city residents are currently experiencing “fear, anxiety, and disempowerment,” and our city once again faces a critical juncture. Baltimore’s identity is rooted in diversity, a big part of which is its open-armed welcome of immigrants, many of whom are becoming increasingly vulnerable. Other disenfranchised populations are also feeling this vulnerability, such as the poor and the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning) community.

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Councilman Zeke Cohen

Taking up President Obama’s call that in times like this, “If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing,” Councilman Cohen and colleagues Councilwoman Shannon Sneed, Councilman Brandon Scott, Delegate Brooke Lierman, Delegate Robbyn Lewis, Casa de Maryland Regional Director Elizabeth Alex, Kenneth Morrison Wernsdorfer, Taylor McKinney Stewart, Sarita Evjen, Joel Rivera, Vernon Horton, Susie Cramer, Katie Long, Leanna Wetmore, Adriana Roja, and other community activists did just that with Friday’s community meeting.

About 250 city residents attended to find out how to resist looming program cuts and worse and, as Councilman Cohen put it, “[to] show D.C. that we are entitled to a decent standard of living.” To rebuild our democracy, in effect.

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Returning to Dr. King’s notion of agape, he wrote that, “Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action . . . Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community . . .” Thus, this gathering was about to what to do after next week’s marches and protests are over. There’s plenty to be done, as the panel let the audience know. From the very practical advice for families facing potential deportation to broader community-wide appeals, the audience was called to action. “Take a step toward unity and away from division,” said Councilwoman Lewis. “Get outside your personal bubble,” urged Councilman Scott.

Quoting from Councilman Cohen’s Facebook page:

. . . I stared out onto a sea of my fellow citizens, united in opposition to bigotry. The diversity of the crowd was beautiful. All of the different colors, creeds, and communities gathered in one space reminded me of why I love our city. Although we spoke in different languages, our message was clear:

When they send the deportation squads, we will say, “Not here, not today.”

When they harass or shame our LGBTQ brothers and sisters we will say, “Not here, not today.”

When they attempt to strip away the last vestiges of our social safety net and endanger our most vulnerable citizens we will say, “Not here, not today.”

This is the Baltimore the national media won’t tell you about. This is our city.

Being our “Education Councilman,” Cohen particularly wants to galvanize schools in this effort. “Community schools,” he says, “recognize assets within a community—what are the good things that are already happening—and they look at the challenges and how they can bring people together. The community school is a beautiful model of how we can all work better to lift up our children and this city.”

And that’s where The New Century School community might join in, by strengthening connections with other groups in the city; by volunteering with organizations like CASA de Maryland who help, among others, our undocumented neighbors; and by supporting our elected officials’ attempts to sustain Baltimore city and its residents with such important legislation as a repeal of the farebox recovery mandate to keep public transportation public, the consent decree for Baltimore City police reform, and changing the S pass policy to keep buses available for students to get to school.

img_0468The panel discussion was followed by break-out circles of smaller groups to discuss specific problems and explore solutions. Councilman Cohen said that afterward, the organizers were told by many that the event was “the first time they felt validated in a public space.”

As Delegate Lewis said, “America is already great.” And so is Baltimore.

See Friday night’s full recorded panel presentation here. We’d like to think it would have made Dr. King proud.

January 20, 2017 Update:

Here is a list compiled by the meeting organizers of ways to get involved locally either by volunteering with an elected official or serving with an advocacy group.

Volunteer with an Elected Official’s Office:

  • Councilman Zeke Cohen (District 1): zeke.cohen@baltimorecity.gov
  • Councilman Brandon Scott (District 2): brandon.scott@baltimorecity.gov
  • Councilwoman Shannon Sneed (District 13): shannon.sneed@baltimorecity.gov
  • Delegate Brooke Lierman (District 46): brooke.lierman@house.state.md.us

Serve with an Advocacy Group:

Meet the Teacher: Beatriz Cabrera Joins TNCS!

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Beatriz Cabrera in her TNCS classroom.

Beatriz Cabrera joined The New Century School this 2016–2017 school year as teacher of elementary and middle school Math and Global Studies. She teaches these two subjects in Spanish, immersing her students in the Spanish language while providing content unrelated to language-learning.

Her background is brimming with teaching experience. After earning a Master’s Degree in Mathematics in her native Spain, Sra. Cabrera began working at a Spanish middle and high school similar to a U.S. charter school. She taught there for 4 years and enjoyed the experience very much, having developed quite a rapport with her coworkers. She still visits them each time she returns to Spain, she says.

When Sra. Cabrera and her husband arrived in the United States from Madrid 2 and 1/2 years ago, she did not speak any English. Since then, she has become fluent enough to teach in both English as well as her native Spanish. She says that although she studied English grammar through high school, using the language in real-life contexts is much different (hence the need for a more immersive approach to language-learning in schools). Her early efforts with the language proved to be of little use. “When I first came here,” she says, “I could not understand a single word!”

Once here, and thrown into the culture, she realized that she just needed to start speaking if she was ever going to be proficient with English—a very immersion-style concept. She emigrated from Spain because her husband, a research scientist, got a position at the National Institute of Aging at the Bayview campus to study how to maintain good health as we age.

When she moved to Baltimore, she found a teaching position after only a week at the Baltimore International Academy, where she taught Math and Science. There, she met Manuel Caceres, who later encouraged her to consider TNCS. She first found out about TNCS, however, because the head of her husband’s research group (also Spanish) highly recommended it, his daughters having attended as preschoolers. She laughs, “I applied just in case, and here I am!”

“I am very happy to be here,” she continued. “I appreciate the environment and my coworkers. The students are very lovely and work very hard. They have a lot of good energy and are very inquisitive. They have an excellent attitude—they love to learn. That is the most important thing.”

Reflections on Dual Language-Learning

She teaches math in Spanish to two separate groups: the 4th-, 5th-, and 6th-graders and the 2nd- and 3rd-graders. She explains:

Spanish and English are very similar languages, so it’s easy for them at this age to work in both languages. It’s important to start early. The materials are all in English, so they are also learning the related English vocabulary, which is necessary, because when they get to high school, they will need that foundation. At the same time, learning in math in Spanish is a great opportunity for them to be special. Not everybody knows a second or even a third language. So this kind of learning makes them more competitive. Being totally fluent in Spanish and Chinese—speaking, writing, reading—will set them apart.

The speaking part, in particular, distinguishes their abilities. Reading and writing in another language can be somewhat easier, as that is how foreign languages are traditionally taught. Being taught another subject entirely in that language, however, trains the brain to operate, to think, in that language—the hallmark of fluency. “When they are in class, they don’t think, ‘I am learning Spanish.’ They think, ‘I am learning math.’ But, in effect, they have 90 minutes of learning two different subjects at the same time, which they don’t even realize.” They are working, enjoying math, but also assimilating Spanish very organically.

Sra. Cabrera also teaches Global Studies to TNCS 2nd- through 6th-graders, which is a new discipline for her. “I have found that Global Studies is something I really like. Again, the materials are all in English because knowing the relevant English vocabulary is important. But, when they make presentations or do projects, they get extra credit for using Spanish. Once again, they do not even realize they are also learning Spanish.” She laughs again—“And also the parents are learning Spanish!” Parents who probably oversaw the creation of the “Egipto” presentations, that is (wink, wink).

“The harder part for the students and the part that takes longer to learn is speaking, and I can understand their feelings. Even going to a restaurant was a challenge for me when I first arrived, so I get it. When they try to speak and find they do not know a word, they lose confidence. I tell them, ‘Just try.’ I am not going to say to them, ‘You should know this.’ No, they are here to learn.”

A True Love of Teaching

With her homeroom, the upper elementary and middle school students, she also places a big focus on Service Learning. Although it has always been an implicit element in the curriculum (see TNCS Elementary Engages in Conservation by the Barrel!, TNCS Elementary Takes Earth Day by Storm!, and TNCS Holiday Outreach Programs), it is a key pillar and core school value as of the 2016–2017 school year. So far, her students have taken a trip to Gunpowder State Park to help clean it up, participated in Project Linus, and acted as ambassadors to a group of Chinese education entrepreneurs visiting the school. An ongoing project is serving as “School Safeties,” escorting the preschoolers into the school building after morning drop-off and ensuring that they arrive safely at their appointed classrooms. “They love this,” she said. “They feel very important when it’s their day to be Safety, wearing their orange vests.”

In her spare time, she explores the United States. “This is a big country with a lot of very interesting places to visit. I have been to Boston, Niagara Falls, Miami, New York a couple of times, Chicago, San Francisco. My next goal is New Orleans.” She also feels a special warmth for Baltimore, but recognizes the city’s pervasive socioeconomic issues. “At my other school,” she says, “my students had family and social problems. They hated snow days because they did not want to have to stay at home—they preferred to come to school. That is so sad. At the end of the day, all they need is love.”

She explains that the way teaching is done in the United States is very different from how it is done in Spain (where adhering closely to an extensive curriculum is paramount). “I am also learning and developing professionally, which is very important. Here, students learn faster because they are pursuing what interests them and they want to be here. We can play math games, for example, which increases their enjoyment but also facilitates the learning process. Sometimes, rote memorization is more emphasized in Spain, which method I do not like. But Spain is starting to emulate some U.S. approaches,” she says with relief.

TNCS is very lucky to have this kind of dedication and insight in all its teachers, and Sra. Cabrera fits right in. “For me, teaching is something I love. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. I never saw myself as anything other than a teacher, even from very young. I love what I do. It is not just a job.”