Purpose of This Blog

Devoted to guiding educators towards a centered and intentional Montessori practice.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Deepening Our Connections

As we gaze into the candles and fires that form the centerpieces of many of our winter traditions, we can explore the relationships humans have to the physical world. Could it be that it is not only cultural nostalgia that draws us to these iconic practices? Could it be a tickling of our ancestral past? Memories of family celebrations, taken deeper, blending into feelings of protection from the unknown wild. Is it a distant perception of our ancestors sitting around a fire for warmth and security?
What lies deeper still? Could it be that at some profound level we have an awareness of our intimate relationship with the universe? Can we can draw connections between our celebrations of light and the fact that we all come from light – light of the great improbable flaring forth, that tremendous burst of energy that erupted from no thing into all that we now know, and more. How incredible to help children make the leap between the bundles of energy dancing in our eyes at the holidays, and the photons present at the very beginning of everything. 
We are all children of this light.

Mindfully Celebrating the Holidays

In Montessori classrooms, we go to great lengths to make connections between cultures and countries across the globe and throughout time. Rather than isolating people through their differences, we celebrate the commonalities we all share.
One way that this is accomplished is by using the Fundamental Needs of People to compare how cultures across the world and through time have met their needs for survival: nutrition, shelter, clothing, belonging, defense, transportation, communication, self-expression, the healing arts, and spirituality.
On this last need, our class discussions become especially rich. We ask questions that provide opportunities for deep reflection: Why is it that so many cultures from so vastly different regions of our planet have celebrations this time of year that involve light? Our conversations reflect an understanding of the need for sunlight for warmth, as well as energy for growing crops for sustaining a community. We discuss the literary image of light as being one of hope and possibility, and of darkness one of wasting and despair. 
What children take away from these conversations is that humans develop practices that are grounded in their most basic needs. If we look first to these needs as we approach understanding our various ceremonies, we may find that we’re not that different after all.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Three Questions


In this beautifully rendered retelling of Leo Tolstoy's short story, Jon J. Muth creates a simple and resonant opening for deep conversations with children about character. 

  • What is the best time to do things?
  • Who is the most important one?
  • What is the right thing to do?    

I have used this fable with upper elementary students as a way of elaborating upon discussions of freedom, personal choice and responsibility. I begin with just the three questions, prior to reading the story. Students can journal their responses individually, have small group conversations, or share their ideas through a facilitated class discussion; each of these strategies has worked well in my experience. 

Partly because of the richness of the watercolor illustrations and partly due to the eloquence of the text, students immediately grasp the immediacy of the needs of the characters involved - they can feel the significance of what transpires.

I encourage you to explore this story on your own, and then share it with students when you are ready. It is a life-affirming tale that can bring clarity to one's own world view, and strengthen the ties of a community who shares it.

Enjoy the reading.

The Three Questions, by Jon J. Muth (ISBN: 0-439-19996-4)

For More Books About Peace:   

Evolution & Intelligent Design: Science & Stories in the Montessori Cultural Curriculum

            Montessorians do a wonderful job of being open to and welcoming of many different cultures and global perspectives within the broader Cultural Curriculum. In our classrooms we often share other ideas on the origins of the universe and the emergence and development of life (myths, legends, family beliefs, etc.). Such practices help develop tolerance and morality.
            In our effort to be inclusive and build community, however, we cannot become so permissive that we allow such stories and philosophies to replace science. The cultural stories that are shared are not equivalent substitutions for the scientific explanations for the same events. This is a separate and distinct discussion to one of beliefs. Evolution is a scientific theory, not a philosophy resting on faith, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 King James Version). Our scientific discussions in no way rule out the possibility of a creator; they merely focus on the data gathered and reviewed.
            In order to speak with authority, it is important that teachers have a firm understanding of what biological evolution is, and of its principle mechanisms: natural selection and genetic drift. The theory of biological evolution is “the process of change in the inherited traits of a population from one generation to the next” (Dorer, 2008). Natural selection causes “heritable traits that are desirable to become more common in a population; traits that are not, are eliminated (Dorer, 2008). “Organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring”(Oxford American Dictionaries, 2005). Genetic drift refers to “random changes over time” (Dorer, 2008) “owing to the chance disappearance of particular genes as individuals die or do not reproduce”(Oxford American Dictionaries, 2005). Educators need to know the science underpinning the theory of biological evolution, and the empirical, data-driven and peer reviewed examples that support it.
            I believe that it is important that we use the word science to denote the kind of study we might be engaged in at a particular time. We need to define what “being scientific” looks like so that children and their parents understand that we are, in fact, taking sides.
            According to the Oxford American Dictionaries (2005), science is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” It is a way of knowing that is grounded in objective study and the testing of ideas. Biological evolution is a theory, “ a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something”, where supposition means “an uncertain belief” (Oxford American Dictionaries, 2005). A theory is only uncertain, however, because it cannot (yet) explain everything that we observe occurring in nature. That doesn’t mean that what it can explain – scientifically – is less valid (Jones in Barlow, 2006, p. 67). 
            Creationism is a religious philosophy that “the universe and living organisms originate from specific acts of divine creation (Oxford American Dictionaries, 2005). It is a story, but not a scientific one. Likewise, Intelligent Design (ID) is also a religious perspective – this one attempting to use science as a mechanism to legitimize its validity. There are two principle tenets of ID: “that life, and the complex processes by which cells do their work, cannot have been produced by that combination of chance and necessity known as Darwinian evolution” (Peterson, 2005, p. 413); and, “ the kind of information embodied in things that are designed can only be produced by an intelligent agent, not by undirected material causes.  Design, they say, is empirically detectable…in living things” (Peterson, 2005, p. 413). Backers of ID believe that reasonings such as the theory of evolution are “wholly insufficient…to explain the specified complexity that characterizes life at the cellular and molecular level”( Peterson, 2005, p. 418).
            Principle ID proponent and spokesperson Michael Behe, professor of biology at Lehigh University and author of Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge of Evolution, believes that some biological systems are “irreducibly complex”(Behe, 2002)  – that is, to break them down into their component parts would be to find examples of structures that do not operate alone and are therefore not consistent with the “numerous, successive, slight modifications of prior systems”(Behe, 2002) as required by Darwinian evolution. Behe sights the flagella of bacteria as one such example.
            The evidence for irreducibility, however, has not been found. “Evolution produces complex biochemical machines by copying, modifying, and combining proteins previously used for other functions” (Miller, 2002). In fact, citing Behe’s flagella example, Miller goes on to show how some of the proteins involved do work independently and can be acted upon by natural selection.
            Another supporter of the intelligent design concept, Jonathan Wells, author of Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Why Much of What We Teach About Evolution is Wrong writes about ten “icons” that he believes indicate flaws in the theory of evolution. Wells “suggests that Darwinism encourages distortion of the truth” and claims that “[s]tudents and the public are being systematically misinformed about the evidence for evolution” (p. xii). One of Wells’ principle examples, however, that comparative drawings of vertebrate embryos faked by the German scientist Ernst Haekel are still being taught as credible examples for evolution has been wholly discredited by the scientific community. “Regardless of Wells’ religious or philosophical background, the Icons of Evolution can scarcely be considered a work of scholarly integrity” (Miller, Janata & Olson, 2006).
            In a 2005 ruling against the Dover [Pennsylvania] Area School District that had required the inclusion of Intelligent Design in the ninth-grade biology curriculum at Dover High, Judge John E. Jones III cited the American Association for the Advancement of Science in their contention that “the Intelligent Design movement [had] not proposed a scientific means of testing its claims and that the lack of scientific warrant for so-called ‘intelligent design theory’ [made] it improper to include [it] as part of science education”(Barlow, 2006). Jones ruled that intelligent design was a “religious theory. Therefore it should not be taught in a science class, not even as a counterpart to evolution. Teaching intelligent design would violate the Establishment Clause because it substitutes a particular religious theory over a scientific theory (ACLU, n.d.).”
            Dr. Steve Case, Research Assistant Professor at the University of Kansas and former chair of the Kansas Science Curriculum Standards Writing Committee, believes that the intelligent design idea is a “God of the gaps” concept; that “God lives in the gaps in our understanding”(Miller, Janata & Olson, 2006). If we introduce intelligent design as a viable scientific theory in schools we set children up, he reasons, to have either a “crisis of faith” or to be “anti-intellectual”( Miller, Janata & Olson, 2006); either students learn more of what the scientific evidence shows and in turn question their faith, or they turn wholly away from learning because if the universe is so complex, we cannot possibly understand it, so why even try.
            As teachers, then, we face an ethical dilemma in treating the stories that are brought to the Montessori cultural curriculum as equivalent to the science explaining the same events. Part of it is how these stories are brought to the fore. Myths, fables and legends used to demonstrate the myriad ways humankind has attempted to explain the strange and mysterious seem to me an entirely valid inclusion. Stories paired, however, with empirical, data-driven and peer reviewed scientific observations and experiments creates controversy in the discriminating minds of elementary-aged children where there is none. The disconnect is one of beliefs, not science.
            For older students, with a solid understanding of the scientific method, biological evolution and natural selection, a discussion of the history of scientific thought could be incredibly enlightening. Then, the tenets of creationism and intelligent design might be teased out and set beside the scientific evidence for evolution. This would be a philosophical discussion about the history of scientific thought – not science itself, because there is no scientific evidence to support either creationism or intelligent design.
            In our younger classrooms, then, let us explore what cultures from around the world have created to explain the mysterious and sublime. Let us truly revel in the similarities of perspectives and belief systems that people from across the globe share. But, let us not treat any of these stories as valid alternative scientific explanations for the theory of biological evolution. To do so would be to misrepresent science as purely conjecture taken on faith.


1. ACLU. (n.d.). Know your rights: A guide for public school students in Colorado             [Brochure]. Retrieved from http://www.aclu-co.org/education/youth/sybil_liberty/index.htm
2. Barlow, D. (2006). Dover schools’ unintelligent design. Retrieved  August 31, 2009.         From http://eddigest.com/
3. Dorer, M. (2008). Intelligent design, science and the Montessori curriculum. MediaSite    Recording. St. Paul, MN: St. Catherine University
4. Miller, S. & Janata, J. (Executive producers), & Olson, R. (Writer/Director).             (2006). Flock of dodos: The evolution-intelligent design circus [motion picture].              United States: Prairie Starfish Productions           
5. Natural History Magazine. (2002, April). Behe, M. (2002). The challenge of             irreducible complexity: Every living cell contains many ultrasophisticated             molecular machines. In R. Milner & V. Maestro (Eds.). Retrieved August 31, 2009 from, http://www.actionbioscience.org/evolution/nhmag.html 
6. Natural History Magazine. (2002, April). Miller, K. (2002). The flaw in the             mousetrap: Intelligent design fails the biochemistry test. In R. Milner & V. Maestro (Eds.). Retrieved August 31, 2009 from, http://www.actionbioscience.org/evolution/nhmag.html 
7. Oxford american dictionaries. (2005). Dictionary [computer software]. Apple             Computer, Inc.
8. Peterson, D. (2008). The Little engine that could…undo Darwinism. In J. Noll             (Ed.), Taking sides: Clashing views on educational issues (pp. 412-419). Dubuque: McGraw Hill.            
9. Wells, J. (2000). Icons of evolution: Science or myth? Why much of what we teach          about evolution is wrong. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Playful & Profound: Reflections on the Development of the Upper Elementary Child

When children enter the Upper Elementary, they suddenly find themselves in a very big and different world. They are sure that they’re in one of the same classrooms down the hall that they used to hear about, but now everything seems a bit off. Things are moving faster: curricula, friendships – it’s like standing on the curb of a busy and exciting, but slightly, terrifying street and wondering how you’re ever going to get across.

But, they do, of course. Fourth graders are industrious and intellectually curious. They look hard for explanations of facts, how things work and why things happen the way that they do. They take pride in their finished work and are suddenly excited to be reading to learn, not simply learning to read. Soon, the world begins to unfold before them again. Where many fourth graders still show their youth is in their inability to truly see big abstract concepts, and in their commitment to rules and regulations. Fourth graders do work cooperatively, but the rules that govern such activities – and the balance thereof – might take precedence over the work itself.

To fifth graders who have been in the class before, everything looks more familiar and comfortable. They are able to concentrate for longer periods of time, they are proud of their academic achievements, and are very receptive learners. Fifth graders enjoy rules and logic, but they don’t get hung up on it as before. Rather, they turn this attention to detail towards deep studies and projects.

Sixth graders, believing that they have it all dialed, are challenged to slow down and reflect and revise previous work. To them, new tasks and experiences are much more interesting than content they previously worked on. That said, sixth graders seem to possess a wonderful ability to abstract – to see the big picture; in fact, these children are beginning to see the world from multiple perspectives. They might believe that their perspective is the correct one, mind you, but they can also articulate the views of others. Sixth graders love to feel grown up and to do work in school that is relevant to them. At times they can be impulsive and argumentative – but that is all just part of them refining their focus back on themselves, as they see themselves as part of the larger world out there.

As students prepare to leave the Upper Elementary, their development tends to again settle. They may feel particularity strong in one content area over another, they can abstract well, and they can see the benefit of rehearsal and preparation to their studies. Graduating students from the Upper Elementary enjoy work that feels real to them as their world shifts to include more and more aspects of current events and pop culture.

At each of these developmental benchmarks, the Upper Elementary teacher works to meet and reach each student where they are. This means not merely responding to how they present, but also intentionally preparing the environment, curricula and teaching strategies so to accommodate these student-chameleons.

For Further Reading, Check Out: Yardsticks by Chip Wood (1997) ISBN: 0-9618636-4-1