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!

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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!

Montessori Theory

The “Annoying” Seven-Year-Old

Seven-year-old Zachary learned how to build a popscicle-stick catapult at a free library workshop last week.  Over dinner that night, I “casually” asked my engineer husband if he knew the difference between a catapult and a trebuchet.  A brief but interesting discussion ensued, and my son hung on to every word.

Sitting around the kitchen table after breakfast Monday morning, I asked Zachary: “What would you like to explore today?”

He pouted and crossed his arms.  “Nothing.”

I tried again.  “Your pen pal is waiting to hear back from you.  Or I could give you ideas for that letter you’ve been meaning to write to Papa.  You could also practice the ukulele.”

“That’s dumb.” He walked upstairs and threw his lanky body on the floor of his LEGO-strewn room.  I followed him.  He mumbled, “I’m not doing anything today.”

Then I casually pointed out, “I’m going to be building a trebuchet downstairs.” (Because all moms need a trebuchet.)  “I would love your help.”

His head popped up.  He tried to look nonchalant as he followed me downstairs.  Five minutes later, he was reading instructions, gathering materials, and pondering physics.  He worked with joy and determination for almost two hours, through fingers scalded by hot glue and countless design adjustments. IMG_1008

We discussed potential and kinetic energy; used fractions and measuring; identified angles and defined new words.  He beamed with satisfaction when his creation was complete.  He then spent thirty minutes flinging projectiles onto a cardboard castle with his catapult and trebuchet, comparing the tactical advantages and destructive power of both weapons. IMG_1016

Second plane children want need to think for themselves.  For many children (and their parents) it can be a time of massive struggle.  Dr. Montessori wrote that the seven-year-old “starts to express judgements” and observed that “the adult finds [the seven-year-old] a bit annoying.”

“Without a new pedagogic directive, a new battle between the adult and this new child arises… [The adult] must be sure of what he ought to do, of what he ought to say, and of the extent to which he must reply to questions… It is indispensable to the child to feel the security the adult can and must give.”

Dr. Montessori observed that, “his thoughts could… have the tendency to lose themselves in abstraction by reasonings without end.” Pushing away or shutting down are the second-plane child’s ways of saying:  I’m feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the world and I need a concrete activity to ground my imagination. 

She reminds us to connect the child to “an external activity to which he will give all his potential.”  You can start anywhere, with any activity that requires the use of the hands and the imagination.  But the art of Montessori in the second plane is to help the child connect that one detail to the whole of the Universe.  “Each detail holds the child’s interest by reason of its strict relation to the others,” Dr. Montessori wrote.  Therefore, “it is sufficient to choose any one detail which will then become a point of departure in the study of the whole.” IMG_1015

You don’t need to have a vast depth of knowledge to engage a second plane child.  You  just need to know enough to get an activity going, and subtly point out a few connections through simple stories.  Spend some time today noticing how everything connects to everything else, and think about the little stories you can tell to bring those connections to life.  Learning will never look the same again to you or your child.

 

 

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BOTW: The Story of Money

Is your child afraid of math?  I know many who are.  I also know that one of the most effective ways to help them overcome their fear of math is to give them an allowance.  In addition to teaching your child patience, opportunity cost, and the value of things, money is a hands-on way to work through many math skills!

My son got hooked on math through his allowance.  At the age of four, he wanted to save up for a LEGO kit. On a piece of graph paper, I marked one square for each dollar he would have to save.  Whenever he got his allowance, he would color in the associated squares and we would count how many more squares – or dollars – he needed to reach his goal.  By the age of five, he was using addition to calculate his goals, and by six he was multiplying.  Now that he’s seven, he has a money journal, where he writes down his debits, credits, and current balance.

His interest in money, and his age, led to the question: “Why do we use paper money?  Why don’t we use gold or computers?”

I’m glad we had The Story of Money in our home library!  This lovely book, written by an elementary teacher, traces the fascinating history of world currencies from the time of the very earliest humans. The engaging illustrations and clear text will take you and your child on a journey through ancient civilizations like Sumer and China.  You’ll then make your way to colonial America and discover how the dollar came to be. storymoney

The Story of Money is written in the style of Montessori’s Cosmic Stories, which helps children stay engaged from start to finish.  My son loved looking at all the different ancient coins, all carefully illustrated to actual size.  This book can inspire many avenues of research for elementary students, from timelines to coin collections.

So, the next time your child feels scared of math, connect math to money, and money to human history with The Story of Money, and watch their fear turn to enthusiasm!

(This post contains an affiliate link.  Purchasing through this link helps support the quality work you enjoy, at no cost to you. Thanks!)

Favorite Books, Language Development, Montessori Theory

BOTW: Kingdom of the Sun

The only thing I like more than discovering good children’s books is sharing them with others.  I’m starting these “Book of the Week” (BOTW) posts to spread the joy of quality children’s literature and will try to post a new book every weekend. (This post contains an affiliate link.)

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“Where do the names of the planets come from?”, asked 7-year-old Zachary.  I knew they were first named after Greek gods and then were changed to the equivalent Roman gods, but didn’t know much else.  Then I found Kingdom of the Sun, where we learned that Aristotle, the astronomer who originally gave the planets the names of Greek gods, “did his best to match the character the gods were supposed to have with what he knew about the planets – their speed, brightness, and color.”

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This sets the stage for the rest of the book, in which the author beautifully personifies each planet.  Thus, Mercury is “forced to lurk unseen in the dazzle of [the Sun’s] brilliance” while Venus “blazes like a brilliant diamond”.  Personification gives way to scientific facts, but the inspiring prose is maintained throughout the book.  The planet Jupiter, whose god persona used thunder and lightning to indicate anger, informs us that “immense electric sparks inject [his] clouds with jagged lightning.”

The Sun and Moon also make an appearance, the former reminding us that his “daily sky-ride is only an illusion” and the latter describing itself as a “somber rock… transformed into beautiful shimmering silver.”

The gorgeous full-color illustrations of the gods and planets have gold-foil accents and include the astrological symbols for each heavenly body.  The author’s use of descriptive language is ideal for expanding the vocabulary of young elementary children (whom Dr. Montessori described as being “lovers of words”).

We had a few minutes to spare before leaving for Zachary’s swim practice, so I offered to read two entries.  He became so smitten with the book that we ended up reading six planet stories before getting in the car; he then begged me to take the book with us so I could read him a couple more while we waited for practice to start!

I loved the combination of mythology, science, and lyrical prose – a true collection of cosmic tales that can inspire much research and creativity.  I hope you enjoy Kingdom of the Sun as much as we have!

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The Valentine’s Day Story

Zachary, age 7, asked me how Valentine’s Day started.  I told him we could research that at the library, but later that night I got curious and went online.  I found conflicting information, so I decided to put together a Cosmic Education story to tell him the tale of the origins of Valentine’s day.  I shared it with him and it inspired us to make care packages for the people experiencing homelessness in our area.  I hope it can inspire acts of kindness, or at least get some conversations started, among the children in your life.

Note: I don’t follow any religion, and I’ve tried to make the story as secular as possible so it can be used widely.  I use the lower-case “g” in all instances of the word “god”, but if that bothers you, feel free to copy/paste and edit at will.  This story is meant to be told orally, as are all Cosmic Education stories, so you can adapt it to fit your audience and/or beliefs.

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The Story of the Origin of Valentine’s Day

Have you ever wondered where people got the idea to celebrate Valentine’s day?  Historians don’t have much information to go on, so I’m going to tell you one of their theories.  For this story, we’re going to go back in time, almost 2,000 years ago, to a country in Europe called Italy.

Italy was the home of the Ancient Romans.  The Roman Empire was very powerful, with a large army and a series of emperors that controlled land from Northern Africa to Western Asia and a large part of Europe.  The Ancient Romans believed in many gods. You’ve probably heard of Saturn, Jupiter and Neptune… Before they were the names of planets, they were just three of the hundreds of gods the Romans worshipped! Keeping the gods happy was of utmost importance to the Ancient Romans, and the Emperor would throw in jail anyone who didn’t believe in these gods or who refused to make sacrifices to them.

One of the groups of people at risk of being jailed were the Christians.  This small group believed in only one god – a god very different from the Roman gods – and felt their mission in life was to help people who were poor, sick or hurt.  After receiving help from the Christians, these people would often convert – they’d stop believing in the Roman gods and start worshipping the Christian god.  As you can imagine, this made the Roman Emperor very, very angry!

One of these Christians was a priest named Valentinus.  He helped the poor and the sick, and many of those he helped were so grateful that they decided to convert.  When the Emperor heard what Valentinus was doing, he locked him in jail to stop him from helping and converting any more Romans to Christianity.  However, Valentinus did not forget about those he’d helped.  He wrote letters to them from jail and signed them “From your Valentinus.”

Valentinus died in jail on February 14th, which was around the time of the Ancient Roman feast of Lupercalia.  This rowdy party celebrated love, and when the Christians became more powerful than the Romans, they replaced this raucous festival with a day to remember the work of St. Valentinus.  And thus, Valentine’s day was born! You can research how the holiday evolved to include chocolates and love poems; it’s quite an interesting story that will take you to Medieval England.

I look forward to hearing what you discover.  But for now, when we celebrate Valentine’s day, let’s take a moment to think about how we – like Valentinus – can make the world a better place by helping those who are poor, sick or hurt.  Because that’s the true spirit of Valentine’s day!

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Montessori Theory

Help and Salvation

When Dr. Montessori spoke of “following the child”, I often wonder if she was talking about following their development or following their example…

In the elementary community of thirty 6-12 year-olds where I spend my days, four boys ages 9 to 11 decided to set a new world record for the longest crochet chain.  They launched daily crocheting sessions while taking turns reading aloud from “The Odyssey”.  After a week, they decided to measure their progress.  The strategy they came up with was to measure the width of our soccer field, then lay out the chain back and forth across the field and multiply the width by the number of spans of crochet chain. chain

Inspired by this project, a group of boys ages 7 and 8 decided that they, too, wanted to crochet a massive chain.  They set to work, and after three days they showed their progress to the older boys.  James, the oldest of the bunch, nodded his approval and offered two words of encouragement: “Not bad”.  The younger boys beamed.

The next day, two members of the younger group came to tell me they were ready to measure their chain.  As I asked them to explain their measurement plan, another member of their team showed up with four yardsticks under one arm, a tape measure in one hand and a fistful of rulers in the other.  They set off for the soccer field, giddy with excitement.

After a while, they came back looking bewildered.  “That was a lot harder than we thought,” one of them confessed.  An hour later, one of the 8-year-olds came to me and said, “We’ve thought about a different way of measuring our chain.  We’re going to do it like James’s team.”

As they said this, 11-year-old James walked by and overheard him.  He stopped and said, “The width of the field is 20 feet.  Maybe that can help you.  Good luck.”  Then he walked away.

In our ruthlessly competitive American culture, one would expect the older boys to be resentful of the younger ones for copying their idea. They could’ve guarded their measurement strategy and data as proprietary information.  After all, we’re talking about setting a world record!  Yet the older boys not only offered words of encouragement, but also gave advice to ensure the younger boys’ success.

As Montessori adults, we’re called to model the collaborative behaviors we want future generations to embody.  And yet, in the words of AMI-USA President Gretchen Hall, we often fall prey to the pettiness of “a culture of ‘them’ vs ‘us’, [where] we…measure others on how ‘Montessori’ they are and we [use] the term ‘Montesomething’ to discredit and devalue others… We boast that our pedagogy lays the foundation for social cohesion, yet we have failed to achieve cohesion in our own community.”

The children know that collaboration is the key to society’s survival, for when we share knowledge, we all win. My students remind me daily that they are our true guides, leading us back towards the essence and truth of human nature.  We have only to follow.

“If help and salvation are to come, they can only come from the children, for children are the makers of men.” – Maria Montessori

Social and Emotional Learning

Bursting the Montessori Bubble

“At what point do you burst the Montessori bubble?” a friend recently asked.  She has two young children in Montessori, but is considering enrolling them in a traditional private school after they finish Primary.

My first thought (as a former Montessori child and current parent and teacher) was, Why would you want to burst it?

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But my friend is not alone in her concern: many parents feel that Montessori shelters children from tests, grades, and competition.  Based on their own childhoods, these parents believe that only a conventional approach to education can provide the tough experiences that will prepare children to be successful when faced with the hardships of real life.

Finding myself at a loss for a coherent answer, I posed the question to pediatric neuropsychologist and Montessori parent Dr. Steve Hughes over dinner.  He looked at me from behind his glasses for a moment, and then asked:

“Which is the real bubble?”

His question was all the answer I needed.

Because the truth is, success in life is not built on a foundation of standardized tests, but on the freedom to make difficult choices and experience their consequences.

Success in life is not built on grades and percentages, but on self-awareness and self-improvement.

Success in life is not built on artificial competition among same-aged peers, but on genuine collaboration between generations.

Success in life is not built on cheating the system, but on having the wisdom and courage to transform it.

In Dr. Maria Montessori’s words…

“If education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man’s future. For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual’s total development lags behind?… The child is endowed with unknown powers, which can guide us to a radiant future.  If what we really want is a new world, then education must take as its aim the development of these hidden possibilities.” 

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All in Good Time

Dr. Montessori realized early on that young children were concrete thinkers.  This means that their brains have a hard time interpreting concepts that cannot be isolated and experienced through the five senses.  Color is one such concept.  Hues are almost always connected to an object: “red” apple, “blue” sky, “yellow” duck.  The very young child struggles to separate the name of the color from the object it belongs to, and this can bring about imprecise impressions that take time and effort to sort out.

tabletsTo support the child’s precise assimilation of these concepts, Dr. Montessori developed the Sensorial materials.  She isolated the concept – in our example, color – and made everything else about the material the same.  The Color Tablets vary only in color and can be sorted and classified, allowing the child to have a clear and tangible experience of an otherwise abstract concept.   We in Montessori refer to these tangible experiences of abstract concepts as “materialized abstractions”.

There are some abstract ideas, however, that can’t be completely “materialized”, and which only become accessible through daily life experiences once the brain reaches a certain level of maturity.  One of these is time.  In Elementary, we have a material that the children use to learn to read an analog clock.  We also provide children with experiences that allow them to “feel” and “see” the passage of time, but the concept can only be truly grasped when the brain is ready to do so.  timer

Cooking gives children many opportunities to experience the passage of time, and it’s one reason why it’s one of my favorite developmental tools.  During our recent Thanksgiving feast preparation, a six-year old and a seven-year old were making cornbread in a crock pot.  The recipe called for the bread to be cooked in the slow cooker for two hours.

The seven-year old took one of our two kitchen timers, the type that goes up to 60 minutes and is set by twisting a knob, and turned to me: “The recipe says ‘two hours’.  Our timer only goes to sixty minutes.  How do we time the bread?”

I said, “Hmmm, what could you do?”

The boy thought for a second and his face lit up.  “We can turn the timer to 60 minutes and when it rings, we can turn it to 60 minutes again!”

The six-year old, who had been listening quietly to the exchange, suddenly got very agitated.  He took the other kitchen timer, ran over to us, and cried out with excitement: “No, I have a better idea!  Let’s set BOTH timers!  One hour and one hour makes TWO hours!!!”