6 - 12, Cosmic Education, Montessori Theory, Theory and Practice

Craving Freedom and Needing Structure

Amidst all the color-coded hour-by-hour homeschool schedules flooding social media, I want to offer a different take on how to help your child organize their day if you have a child who paradoxically craves freedom and needs structure.

I created for my eight-year-old twice-exceptional second-grader a pie graph showing the amount of time (out of a 24-hour day) he can spend exploring/reading/playing/learning what he’s passionate about, vs. the amount of time I would like him to focus on practicing and developing specific academic skills (writing, math, grammar, spelling).

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Need For Structure

The structure comes in the form of a weekly learning journal that shows him the concepts we’ll be working on.  We choose the topics together, based on what we’ve covered the prior week. The order in which we visit the subjects is up to him.  Together we decided that this type of work was best done immediately after lunch, when he’s already downstairs at the kitchen table and isn’t engaged in creative projects or silent reading.  However, he gets to choose daily whether he completes his academic practice in one sitting or takes 15-minute breaks between subjects.  Breaks can include making popcorn, throwing the ball outside, walking the dog, etc.

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Need For Freedom

The freedom comes in the form of a prepared environment, free of screens or other electronics (including no audiobooks Monday to Friday).  He has a big selection of books (fiction and non-fiction at all reading levels) and spends hours a day reading.  He has lots of LEGOs and spends many hours building crazy contraptions.  He can whittle, draw, do experiments, ride his bike, play Hot Wheels, explore the neighborhood, and cook.  We do daily read-alouds in Spanish and English, read a bit of poetry a couple of times a week, listen to beautiful music in the car, and he knows I’m available to have conversations about random questions that pop into his mind.  (Before quarantine, we also spent time in museums, at a STEM maker-lab, with our Montessori learning community, and enjoying nature with friends).

Freedom and responsibility are the yin and yang of the elementary years; they’re the rhythm of the delicate and ever-evolving dance between parent and child.

“The emphasis on freedom is for the development of individuality. The emphasis on discipline is for the benefit of the individual and of society.” – Maria Montessori

 

6 - 12, Cosmic Education, Science

Worm Moon

Tomorrow we’ll have the first Supermoon of the year – the Worm Moon!  Do you know where the name comes from?  Here’s a short story I wrote (meant to be told orally).  I hope you can share it with your children, or at least enjoy its message.

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Look up!  What do you notice?  Did you observe that the full moon is larger than usual?  We call it a Supermoon, and your eyes aren’t deceiving you… The moon IS larger than usual because it’s closer than usual, and that’s because the moon’s orbit around the Earth isn’t perfectly circular – it’s elliptical.

Every Supermoon has a special name, and today I want to tell you where this one’s name comes from.  Let’s go back five or even ten thousand years ago, to when the native people of this country lived in harmony with nature.  During Winter, the humans who lived between Lake Superior and New England in what is now the United States hunted, wore animal skins, made fires, and took shelter from the snow.  They waited patiently for Spring to come, but they didn’t have calendars like we do. Instead, they observed nature to know when the seasons were changing.

Every year, around this time, they noticed tiny, dark brown pellets on the cold, slowly-thawing ground.  These pellets – we call them castings – were a clue for them, a message from nature that warmer weather was ahead. When these castings appeared, so did something else: robins – grey birds with bright orange breast feathers.  The robins weren’t eating the castings, because castings is just a fancy word for poop! They were preying on the animals who left the castings. Can you guess which animals the birds were eating?

Yes, worms!  Earthworms! The appearance of worm castings told humans that warmer weather was on its way, because the ground was now soft enough for the worms to move through it.  The presence of worms also indicated that the land was almost ready for planting, since these animals do the important work of aerating the soil and their castings help plants absorb more nutrients. 

Earthworms came to signify the end of winter and the approach of the planting season, which meant fresh food and survival for another year.  And thus, this Supermoon became known as the Worm Moon.

Other human groups have given it different names, like Crow Moon, Crust Moon, and Sap Moon.  You can investigate the stories behind these names and let us know what you discover. But for now, when we look up at the Worm Moon, we can think back to those patient and resourceful people who didn’t need paper calendars, because they lived in harmony with the Earth.

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6 - 12, Cosmic Education, Science

Story of Chemistry: Part I

I wrote this story a while back for the Upper Elementary group I inherited that hadn’t been exposed to chemistry.  I never got around to writing Part II but if you take on that challenge, let me know!

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Pretty much all that we see or touch in our seemingly solid existence is made from an unimaginable number of tiny atoms, each a different type of element or building block. When you combine these atoms in different ways, they make up everything that we can see in the Universe.

Do you remember when we told the story of The Origin of the Universe? We talked about an enormous cloud of gases that swirled in Space. These particles started to come together as the Earth cooled. Some became solids, some turned into liquids, and some remained gases. The rain, the oceans, the rocks, and the air were all made from different combinations of elements, and later on, life also emerged from these same building blocks.

Humans have tried to understand elements since the dawn of recorded time. Copper, for example, has been used since at least 9000 BC. That’s more than 11,000 years ago! By the time of the Ancient Egyptians, around 5,000 years ago, seven metals had been discovered and were being used for everything from weapon-making to jewelry. The Egyptians had a strong connection between the metals, the cosmos, and their fertile land, and called this study Khem.
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The ancient Chinese, around the same time period, thought that everything was made of five elements: water, wood, fire, earth, and metal. They used these ideas in their development of acupuncture. In India, they were also studying matter, and discovered how to use the color of fire to identify different types of metals.

When the Greeks conquered Egypt in 332BC, they became interested in the Egyptian theories of how matter was made. They turned the word Khem into Khemia , which became the Greek word for “Egypt.” Around that time, the Greek philosopher Aristotle decided that the building blocks of all matter should be called elements. According to him, there were five: earth, air, fire, water, and quintessence, which formed the heavens.

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In the 7th century AD, Egypt was invaded by the Arabs, who added the prefix al- to Khemia. And thus, the science of alchemy was born. For centuries, Arab alchemists used what they knew about elements to try to discover a way to make a substance that would make humans immortal. They also wanted to turn ordinary metals – and other substances – into gold, the most valuable of metals.

When the Arabs invaded Spain, they brought their ideas of alchemy with them and kindled the curiosity of many scientific minds in the European continent. The search for a way to make gold, known as the “philosopher’s stone,” drove many scientists to try some very odd experiments indeed! A German alchemist, Hennig Brandt, tried boiling down urine, thinking he could find gold in the yellow liquid. What he discovered, quite by accident, was a new element: phosphorus!

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Why was this so ground-breaking? Because phosphorus, rubbed the right way, would burst into fire (guide lights match). It went on to be used in the invention of matches. Brandt had proven, by accident, that substances commonly found in nature could be “turned” into something valuable. He hadn’t really turned urine into phosphorus; he’d just separated the phosphorus from all the other elements that combine to make urine.

Brandt’s discovery caused many alchemists to look around and wonder: What’s all of this made of? Have you ever wondered that, too? Think about air, for example. Humans have always felt air and they’ve seen its effects during hurricanes and tornadoes, but they never understood what it was.

In the late 1700’s, this all changed when an amateur British scientist named Joseph Priestly discovered several “new airs,” as he called them. Priestly wasn’t a scientist by trade; he was a teacher and writer. However, he loved to play around in his lab at home. One day, he poured acid on a powder, trapped the air it produced, and used it to to put out a flame. (guide performs “carbon dioxide extinguishes fire” experiment) He had discovered carbon dioxide, and later went on to discover eight other gases!

In 1767, Priestly lived next to a brewery – a place where they make beer. He noticed that over the vats where the beer was fermenting, there was a haze of carbon dioxide. He collected this gas, mixed it with drinking water, and invented carbonated water, which he called “windy water.” (guide opens bottle of carbonated water and serves to children)

Now, around that time, sailors in the British Navy were suffering from a deadly illness called scurvy. As you can imagine, a Navy full of sick or dead sailors can’t win any wars! Priestly thought that his windy water could be a cure for scurvy, so he wrote to the British Navy asking them to test his theory. The French Navy was also struggling with this malady, and Priestly’s potential secret remedy was stolen by a French spy! It made its way to the French Navy, who contacted one of France’s most intelligent scientists, a young man named Antoine Lavoisier.

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It turned out that Priestly’s windy water, though refreshing, was useless against scurvy. However, it would help to transform alchemy into a serious science: chemistry. But that’s a story for another day…

6 - 12, Cosmic Education, Montessori Materials, Montessori Theory, Theory and Practice

The Art of Introducing a Lesson

Often, the most challenging part of giving a lesson is getting the children excited and ready to learn.  Here are seven strategies to ensure your presentation gets off to a good start.

1. Check your attitude: You need to believe in the value of what you’re going to present. The children will smell your fear or hesitation a mile away.  If a particular topic scares you, spend more time with it.  Read, listen to podcasts, watch videos, use your hands to explore the concept, and find new ways of looking at the subject.  When you love it, your students will likely love it.  If you’re worried your lesson will be boring, practice ahead of time. A trainer once told me that during the first year you teach in a classroom, you need to practice every single lesson ahead of time.

2, Prime the pump: Sometimes, I’ll  start a conversation about the topic a while before the lesson (like at breakfast or in the car). And that way, when it’s time for the lesson, I can say: “Remember when we talked about how angles can be found in buildings, trees, baseball fields and playgrounds? Well, did you know that some of those angles you saw have names, just like you have a name? Look over here…”

3. Play to their sensitivities: Second-plane children have a sensitivity for imagination.  For the first time in their lives, they can craft in their minds wondrous images that they’ve never seen or experienced before.  They also have a sensitivity for knowledge and culture; they want to know the why and how of everything.  Use that to your advantage by starting your lesson with: “Have you ever wondered…” or “Have you ever noticed…” 

4. Tell stories: “We’re wired for story”, writes Brene Brown.  And it’s true.  I recently told my seven-year-old son a funny story about dealing with a pushy bike salesman; he asked me to re-tell it five times in a row and laughed heartily each time.

“Travel stories teach geography; insect stories lead the child into natural science; and so on.”

– Dr. Maria Montessori

Tell lots of stories! In the car and during meals, get used to telling funny, interesting, and moving stories about your own life.  Do this to hone your craft, but also because when you introduce a lesson by saying, “I have a story to tell you”, they’ll be more inclined to listen.

For story-telling inspiration, listen to this podcast episode where master storyteller Jay O’Callahan shares his strategies for crafting a good story (and tells a wondrous story of his own along the way).  For stories that tie into the Montessori elementary curriculum, read “The Deep Well of Time” by Michael Dorer.

5. Entice them with interesting follow-up work: Sometimes it’s great to let children choose how and when they’re going to follow up on what you’ve presented, but other times, dangling an enticing follow-up activity will draw them to the lesson.  Don’t divulge too much information; offer just enough detail to draw them in.  You could say, “How would you like to draw all over the kitchen floor?  When we’re done learning about different types of angles, you get to do just that!”  Suddenly eyes are wide open, faces are turned towards you, and the children are ready to learn.  If they ask you questions about the mysterious follow-up, you can just lightly say, “Ahhh, you’ll find out soon enough!”  This approach works particularly well for lessons that are more dry and straightforward.

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6. Ask for helpers: To get and keep children engaged, let them get their hands on the materials as soon as possible.  Give them jobs ahead of time so their presence at the lesson has some significance to them.  “Today I want to show you something the Ancient Egyptians discovered five thousand years ago, that we still use in our lives today.  Zach, can you be in charge of the push pins?  Bill, can you be the stick selector?  Olivia, can you be the label reader?”

7. Be ready: In my trainings, I was told that you prepare all the materials with the children prior to the lesson so they know where everything is and what they need.  However, I’ve found that in my homeschooling environment, it helps to bring out the materials ahead of time, feature them attractively, and direct the children’s attention towards the rug or table when they seem to be at a good stopping point in their other work.  This works particularly well for my seven-year-old son and his elementary-aged friends who visit us to use our materials (I still follow the more traditional approach with my Primary-aged daughter).

Now, go forth and, as Dr. Montessori used to say, “seduce the child”!

_The secret of good teaching is to regard the child’s intelligence as a fertile field in which seeds may be sown, to grow under the heat of flaming imagination. Our aim therefore is not merely to make the child under (2)

*This post includes affiliate links.

3 - 6, 6 - 12, Cosmic Education, Language Development, Math and Geometry

Cosmic Calendar

Connecting math, language, history and other academic subjects to your child’s real-life experiences makes learning relevant, increases participation, and supports development.  A hands-on home calendar is an ideal tool to learn and practice a variety of skills (whether you homeschool or not!).  It also provides many opportunities for cultural explorations.  Here’s how we use it in our home…

MATH: The first day of each month, I take down the calendar numbers, divide them into three piles (1-10, 11-20, 21-31), mix them up within their piles, and invite my four-year-old to order them and insert them into the calendar slots (I tell her on which day of the week to start).  We also calculate how many days are left until a particular event by counting linearly.

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LANGUAGE: We read the month card together when we re-set the calendar, as well as the days-of-the-week cards when the numbers are being arranged.  We also talk about yesterday, today, tomorrow and next week (to crystallize past, present and future language).

HISTORY: My seven-year-old son recently wanted to know where the names of the week come from, so with the help of these cards we explored the origins of these words and then substituted the control cards for the calendar’s original days-of-the-week cards so we could have a daily reminder of the celestial body and mythological god from which our days of the week originate.  Our calendar also comes with cards for all the federal holidays and the major religious holidays from Christianity, Judaism and Islam.  We label holidays accordingly on the calendar and sometimes research their origin or how they’re celebrated.

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SENSE OF ORDER: Most children thrive on consistency and routine.  I made a daily slip that sits behind each number and helps my children know what is happening each day (e.g. ballet each Thursday, allowance each Friday, etc.).  We also use small sticky notes to color-code their “show night” (they each have one night a week where they get to pick one episode of one cartoon).  The calendar also comes with special “field trip” and “birthday” cards for special events.

The exploration of time can start sensorially years before a child can grasp it abstractly.  This simple and engaging tool provides countless learning opportunities and is a mainstay in our Montessori homeschooling environment.  Let me know if it works for you!

*This post contains affiliate links.

 

Cosmic Education, Language Development, Science

Unschooling: Soap Bubble Edition

My four-year-old found an old bubble wand and asked if we could make bubbles, so I googled this recipe and we set to work.  She had a great time measuring, pouring and stirring, and she got to experience sugar disappearing in water to make a solution (yay, science and vocabulary!).

We were having so much fun blowing bubbles on our back patio that my seven-year-old decided to join the party.  He wanted to see how far the bubbles could travel without popping, and noticed that there were several updrafts and wind currents that moved the bubbles along.  We talked about how hot air rises, and about how wind currents change direction at different altitudes.

We also tried out wands of different shapes and made our own out of pipe cleaners to see if they affected the shape of the bubble.  My little one came up with a fun experiment where she dipped a pipe cleaner in bubble solution and then pierced the bubble film on a wand without popping it!

IMG_4325Then we tried making bubbles holding our fingers in an OK sign, which led to catching bubbles (this is much easier if your hand is covered in bubble solution).  That led to talking about surface tension and surfactants, which led to observing the bubbles we were holding in our hands.

My son noticed swirls that flowed on the surface of the bubble, and I vaguely remembered seeing an experiment with milk, food coloring and soap that looked similar to the swirls.  I stealthily snuck inside and googled “swirls in soap bubbles”.  That led me to the Marangoni effect, which led me to the experiment I was thinking of, and I had everything I needed to continue our learning journey when the bubble activity died down outside.

After lunch, my four-year-old and I poured milk and dye into a plate, and added one drop of soap.  My seven-year-old, who claimed not to want to learn anything else about bubbles, was instantly drawn to the experiment and repeated it three times.  During his second attempt, I pointed out the milk’s surface tension (really easy to see on a flat plate!) and asked him what effect he thought the soap had on it.

And to wrap up a fun day, we took the solution and wands to the park and invited a couple of neighborhood kids to help us chase and pop bubbles.  Whew!  So much learning, so many discoveries, and so much fun… And all because my daughter found an old wand, we didn’t have plans for the day, and I chose to say yes.

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6 - 12, Cosmic Education, Theory and Practice

The Un-Checklist

If you’re a teacher or homeschooling parent who uses checklists to encourage a child’s organization and accountability, then you already know just how quickly checklists can turn into a battle of wills between adult and child.  You also probably sense that checklists hinder freedom of choice.  And you’ve surely noticed that checklists shift the focus of the child’s work away from self-development and flow, and towards task completion and industrial efficiency.

While checklists can work beautifully for a pilot safety-checking an airplane or a hospital staff preparing for a surgery, they wreak havoc on a child’s innate ability to follow his interests in the quest for true mastery and understanding.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting children to develop organization skills and hold themselves accountable.  So, how can we reach these well-intentioned goals without the drawbacks associated with checklists?

In our house, my son and I had a conversation about the reasons for practicing each of the disciplines that are currently a part of his homeschooling journey.  I made a large watercolor circle for each subject and wrote our combined thoughts.

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Then, on one sheet of paper, I started a mind map with the six subjects he’s currently exploring written in the same colors as the individual watercolor circles.  We re-read the reasons for exploring each subject area, and I asked him to think of some interesting topics he might want to learn about.  I connected those interests to the relevant subject areas.  We talked about some topics that I wanted to share with him and I wrote those down as well.

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This became our learning map, and we turn to it daily throughout the month.  Some days I choose what to present and other days he takes the lead.  We add topics to the month’s map as he discovers new interests, and I direct his attention towards the areas of the map that we haven’t visited yet.  Next month, I’ll start a new map and together we’ll discuss what he’s explored to his satisfaction and what he’d like to transfer over, in addition to the new topics we’ll be adding.

I love seeing him stand in front of the learning map, taking in the depth and breadth of explorations and learning opportunities he’s had in just one month.  This map doesn’t begin to capture the richness of his homeschooling experience, with daily adventures in nature, countless opportunities for social interaction, and freedom to play and daydream.  But I think it sends a message that’s developmentally appropriate for his age: Learning is a journey across a vast and varied landscape.  You may spend more time exploring some lands than others, but every stop along the way will enrich you and change you forever.

6 - 12, Cosmic Education, Favorite Books, Montessori Materials, Montessori Theory, Science, Theory and Practice

Moon-tessori (haha, couldn’t resist)

“You’re great at this homeschooling thing because you’re a teacher… I don’t think I could do it because I don’t know much about anything.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this phrase since we started homeschooling two months ago, coming from the most capable and well-prepared mothers in my circle of friends.  So here’s a little secret… I don’t know everything.  Heck, I don’t know most things!  But I don’t let that hold me back from learning and sharing with my children.  Here’s an example of how I facilitate learning, and how you can, too!

The moon is a topic that seems to keep coming up in the Full Montessori household.  Over the past few months we’ve read several fiction and non-fiction books about the moon (links at the bottom of this post) and we play games trying to find different shapes (a rabbit, and old man) on its surface.  Seven-year-old Zachary had been asking why the moon changes through the month, so I knew it was prime time for a moon lesson.

Truth be told, even after 12 years as a Montessori guide, I could never quite grasp HOW the moon moved in relationship with the Earth, why the lighted part changed throughout the month, or how to tell when the lighted part was growing or shrinking.  But the beauty of being a guide is that you don’t have to know everything, you just have to “learn ahead of your children” (I love that Charlotte Mason phrase).

So, I found these two extremely helpful videos and FINALLY understood how it all works (thank you, Google)!

Then I dragged my kids to the craft store to buy a foam sphere (without telling them what it would be for); printed, cut, and laminated these free Moon Phases cards; and practiced the Moon/Earth/Sun demonstration when my kids weren’t around.  Yes, sometimes it takes That. Much. Work.

But, you know what?  It was so worth it!  I invited my son to sit down and told him his head was the Earth (my three-year-old daughter wasn’t interested, because, hello concrete thinker!).  I then began slowly moving the moon around his head, and he saw how the lighted part of the white sphere grew from waxing crescent to first quarter.  His eyes widened and his mouth stretched into a knowing smile.  I continued moving the moon around his head and I could tell he was enjoying the discovery process as much as I had.  When we were done and I had casually sprinkled the terms for the moon phases into the demonstration, he got up and went downstairs to play with his sister.

I waited for a lull in their play and pulled out the moon phases cards.  I told him we were going to play a moon game and put the “New Moon” card on the rug.  I lined up the other cards randomly on the edge of the rug and said, “Hmm, which card might go next?”  Eager to apply his knowledge, he quickly fished out the Waxing Crescent card and completed the entire cycle on his own.  He mixed up Waning Crescent and Waning Gibbous, but I didn’t say anything.  I just offered the control chart and he caught his mistake on his own.

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If you’re a Montessorian, you might be wondering why I used the control cards for the lesson (heresy!!).  If you must know, my son has little tolerance for three-part cards.  They just don’t resonate with how he learns.  If he knows the information, he isn’t the type of child who will humor you with busy work just to show you what he knows.  And if he doesn’t know something, he wants to get straight to the knowledge and understanding part right away – and three-part cards just don’t give him that.  I knew (from experience) that if I went through the whole rigamarole of having him lay out the picture cards, finding the corresponding labels, and then using the control cards to check, I’d lose him for sure.

There are about a thousand different ways to help your child solidify their knowledge of the moon phases, or any other concept they’re curious about.  My intention here was to illustrate how I go about preparing myself to facilitate my children’s learning – and often, my own!

it is not enough quote

Favorite moon books:

Fiction: Luna and the Moon Rabbit, Kitten’s First Full Moon

Non-fiction: Jump Into Science: Moon, The Moon Book

The books mentioned above are affiliate links.  Purchasing through these links helps support the quality work you enjoy on this blog, at no cost to you.  Thank you!