Tuesday, March 31, 2009

35 minutes each Tuesday

Character building program.
"Classes are scheduled for 35 minutes each Tuesday in order to teach positive character traits throughout the year."

This description is lifted from the curriculum document of a well regarded traditional school. It is typical of The Old School and its fundamental belief:

If you don't teach it, it doesn't get learned.

And the corollary, if you taught it, the students must know it.

And the corollary to that: if a student doesn't know it, it is his fault because, after all, it was taught.

Since The Old School wants students to develop positive character traits, it teaches them for 35 minutes each Tuesday.

At a recent Alumni Night, one of our graduates who was then a college junior said, "Montessori school is not preparation for life--it is life." In other words, character building happens all day long every day as children make choices that shape their work, their role in the community, and their interactions with adults and other children.

They aren't simply told to be responsible; they are given opportunities to be responsible, to manage their studies and their social relationships. Montessori called the teacher "a guide" or "a director" because that describes how the adult works with each child. The teacher does not narrowly control the children; nor does he leave them free to do whatever they like. The teacher guides and coaches the individual child and the group toward personal independence and responsible interdependence.

Yesterday I stopped in to an upper elementary classroom. The teacher was finishing lunch at his lesson table, and two fourth grade boys were engaged in a focused and quiet conversation at another table. They were the only students in the classroom. All the others had just gone out to recess. After a couple of minutes, they came over to their teacher to explain that they had worked out their differences, that it had all been a misunderstanding to which they had each contributed. They were sent on their way to join their classmates on the playground. It seems that they had been bumping and pushing one another when the class lined up.

This was 5 minutes on Monday, not 35 minutes on Tuesday, but it was definitely "character building." What did they learn? First of all, they learned that their teacher has confidence in them to solve problems -- not by "letting them fix it themselves," but under the watchful supervision of a caring adult. They learned that it is important to deal with conflict, not to sweep it aside. They learned that confronting issues directly can untangle them. They learned that speaking and listening can resolve issues in a way that physical responses cannot.

What didn't their teacher do? He didn't solve the problem for them. He didn't decide who was at fault and impose a punishment. He didn't lecture. He didn't tell them what they should have done or not done. He didn't "teach."

Well, he did teach by way of what he chose to do and chose not to do, but if you asked the boys, they would say they solved the problem themselves. And that is a powerful, charcter-building lesson.

Friday, March 27, 2009


Remember the Alamo! I'm sure that our upper elementary students will do just that--40 of them spent two days and one night in San Antonio to visit historical sites.

They prepared for the trip by researching Texas history and geography. They also divided into four groups to write rules: bus rules, restaurant rules, venue rules, and hotel rules.

Here are the restaurant rules:
  • Use good manners.
  • Use indoor voices.
  • Order a reasonable amount of food.
  • Keep rude comments to yourself.
  • Be responsible with your food.
  • Be respectful to the waiter/waitress.
  • Ask chaperone to go to the bathroom.
  • Keep your hands to yourself.
  • Have fun following these rules.

I really like that the rules are cast in the form of positive expectations rather than "Thou shalt NOT..."

And the last rule, seemingly a semi-facetious afterthought, is in fact, an incredibly mature acknowledgement that you don't have to break the rules to have fun (as some people believe).

The restaurant rules committee printed their list, as did the other three committees. Then all 40 students signed each list, making a personal commitment to follow them. It reminds me of that seminal document of American history, the Mayflower Compact, a social contract in which the governed established and agreed upon the rules that would bind them.

These rules were not simply imposed on the children by their teachers. The children were given the freedom to exercise their responsibility. This is a significant social accomplishment. Just imagine those four committees of ten children each, meeting to create these lists.

This is how we help children develop responsibility. This is how moral development evolves. This is how social and emotional intelligence are fostered. We don't have a student government at Post Oak. Or do we?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Quote of the day

"In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists." -Eric Hoffer

This reminds me of the distinction between a learner and a knower (Hoffer's 'learned'). A knower KNOWS. If he finds himself not knowing, it threatens his identity. To defend his identity he has several options: he can pretend that he knows; he can change the subject; he can avoid the situation altogether. If something is hard, he has to bail out because, after all, he's a KNOWER, and if it is hard, or if he doesn't know it already, then he must not be a knower.

On the other hand, a learner understands that learning is a process. He understands that there is a steep part of the learning curve. He understands that mistakes are a normal part of learning. He does not define himself as smart--as a finished product--, but as someone who is always learning, always curious, always in development.

Who would you rather spend time with?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


This is a letter about Hunter, who is a 7th grader, and his visit to an infant community class where he spent a morning working with the two year olds. Community service is not a punishment at Post Oak, it is a privilege. All of our middle school students do weekly community service--usually off campus, but on this day, Hunter had the opportunity to work in one of our classrooms here at Post Oak.

Dear Middle School Team~

I want to tell you how impressed I was with Hunter yesterday.

He came to my class to do community service, and his poise, confidence, and innate respect for my children impressed me beyond belief. I spoke briefly to him when he came in, but then I had to go and help another child. Hunter immediately spotted a little boy who looked like he needed some help. He approached him with such gentleness and respect. The next thing I knew they were working on some wood polishing, and I don’t know who was enjoying it more—Hunter or the young child!! He read books to the children, took a little girl into the garden and played catch with her, and assertively stood his ground when more than one child wanted to work with him (“I can’t work with you right now, but I will be there in just a minute.”). I have had fellow Montessori teachers enter into this environment who did not assimilate as well as Hunter did, and I would welcome him back at any time. I know my students would agree too!

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to see what a Post Oak middle school student is like. I could not be more proud.
Take care~

Jessica Wagner
Full Day Infant Community Teacher
Teacher Recruiter
The Post Oak School

Sunday, March 22, 2009


The problem with Montessori children is that they are courageous. They speak up for what they believe in, what they believe to be right. And they have the courage to follow their dreams. Too many parents want to control their children, to shape their lives...and I'm not just talking about kids who are three years old or five or ten. Know any parents who approve of certain career choices but not others?

My two young adult sons have the courage to follow their dreams. Karl took a long and winding path to law school. He's graduating this spring. Timing's not so good, but he's doing what he wants.

His older brother, Jacob, just played three shows at SXSW in Austin. His band, Mi Ami, is creating music that the NY Times called "strange and cool". Some people hate it, some love it. According to Seth Godin, you're not pushing the limits unless you get that range of responses, so I guess they are succeeding.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Holistic living


I do more than school. I do so to stay healthy in mind and body. I intentionally use both sides of my brain. And I also try to drop down from my conscious brain to my unconscious. I get there by engaging in activities where I achieve flow. I'm an artist. I'm also a cyclist (that's me in the middle).

Here in Houston we can ride our bikes 12 months of the year. Every April 13,000 of us ride 180 miles from Houston to Austin in a two-day charity event, the MS150 (well, 180 almost equals 150). I started doing that ride and asking for donations nine years ago when Post Oak School teacher Barbara Hacker was diagnosed with MS by Post Oak parent Dr. Mark Welborn. Mark was a cycling buddy of mine until he and his family moved to San Antonio. Barbara continues to teach her primary classroom at Post Oak.

I invite you to support me in my ride by clicking on the above link.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Education...by design?

"I don't want to be an accidental parent."

What a surprising and powerful statement that is: a commitment to intentionality, a commitment to action based on principle. It came from a participant in one of our prospective parent meetings, a series of four classes we offer as a part of the admission process to the Post Oak School. We want parents who are considering our school to make an informed choice; to understand what we do and why; and we hope they will learn basic Montessori ideas that will be helpful at home right away.

This parent thanked us for helping her understand the importance of offering a child choices because that empowers the child. He has a voice. He feel likes he has some control over his world. He is not a pawn or a victim. At the same time, the adult must set limits on the choices. The child is not running the show, and limits provide security and structure.

It is time for your two year old to get dressed. You do not ask, "Would you like to get dressed?" That is not really a choice that you are offering...unless you are ready to accept "no" for an answer. But you could say, "It is time to get dressed. Would you like to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt?" Or, if you have limited to a small number the shirts in the dresser drawer, you could say, "It is time to get dressed. Would you choose a shirt to wear?"

This is an example of a design principle undergirding Montessori classrooms: children make choices within limits. This helps them learn to make choices. It helps them develop their will. It helps them develop diligence and self-control. It helps them know themselves, recognize their own interests and act on them. It helps them have a respectful engagement with adults and with authority, rather than to utilize opposition as the only way to express autonomy.

Do all schools have design principles? What are they?

Tangential connections to the idea of "education by design:"

David Perkins' book Knowledge as Design
Dan Pink's book A Whole New Mind
Fast Company magazine
the books of Edward Tufte
the work of Frank Lloyd Wright
Presentation Zen
Wordle: Montessori stories

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

5 conversations


coming soon:

f : a : l : s : e : d : i : c : h : o : t : o : m : y

Quote of the day:

The dangers of compliance

“We need kids who don’t just do what they’re told but who are self-directed.”

– Ken Kay, P21, quoted in USA Today

The above statement appeared on Dan Pink's blog as his quote of the day for March 6, 2009, so in this instance, I'm only 10 days behind the curve. You may have seen Dan Pink when he spoke at the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) refresher course in 2007.

Ken Kay is the executive director of P21: The Partnership for 21st Century Skills. You'll see that organization referenced in my earlier posts ("21st Century Wrangle", and "Pangea.")

Monday, March 16, 2009

Wave and Shout

Tell me a story.

My father used to read us stories at bed time. And when Kathy and I had children, I read to them from the time they were born. Really. I remember singing the newspaper aloud to my older son, Jacob, when I was changing his diaper. And Mother Goose. I loved reading and singing Mother Goose to both boys. And the Oxford Book of Verse.

When I taught elementary students, I read to my classses every day. I read the Illiad and the Odyssey; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Gilgamesh; Wild Animals I Have Known; The Snow Goose; Little House on the Prarie; The Boyhood of Abraham Lincoln; Alice in Wonderland; The First Family; The Phantom Toolbooth; Charlotte's Web; and Old Yeller. Kids love hearing stories.

So do adults. Adults listen to stories and we make stories. We make stories to make sense of our experiences and of the world. Isolated facts slip away. Narrative helps us to remember, and to understand.

Story telling is the best way to present ideas and to sell ideas. We in Montessori education have not been very good at that. We lecture. We write abstract, academic prose. We speak jargon. We are the opposite of Montessori education.


We are the opposite of Montessori education.

Dr. Montessori understood how to make learning memorable, how to appeal to the learner, how to make it "sticky". For the young child, that meant tactile. "Never give more to the mind than you give to the hand."

For the elementary child, she expanded communication tools to include story telling, which often employed posters and charts: visual icons to encapsulate the story in a single image. The other day three 8-year olds brought me a picture of the little factory that exists within every green leaf -- a metaphorical representation of photosynthesis: the leaf factory. They told me the story of combining water from the ground, and carbon dioxide from the air, and then baking the mix like bread in a solar powered oven to produce food for the plant. And of releasing oxygen as a by-product--and how that helps us humans because we need to breathe oxygen. And of how we help the plants when we breathe out carbon dioxide. What a wonderful partnership, they said.

We Montessori people need to learn how to tell our story. It is frustrating to read lists of proposed educational reforms that unknowingly describe Montessori principles. We wave our arms and shout: "CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?"

We need to get better at telling our story.

Friday, March 13, 2009


Two 9-year olds just left my office.

This is the third time they have visited me in the past two weeks. No, they aren't hellions banished to the headmaster's office. And I trust they won't step into some future headmaster's office with the trepidation I sense in many parents when they come to see me. I can only imagine what memories they are replaying in that moment.

No, Isabel and Sean Paul were here to show me five geometric figures they had rotated about a point on the perimeter. (a rectangle, a curvilinear triangle, a quatrafoil, a circle, and a trapezoid.)The last time they stopped by, they had rotated an assortment of geometric shapes around the center of the figure. This all started one day when I dropped in on their classroom. They were in the middle of a geometry lesson about the 7 kinds of triangle, and Sean Paul spun a wooden triangle on the table. Could have been interpreted as fooling around. I said, "That's pretty cool. If you are interested in learning to draw that spinning triangle, come by my office when you finish this work." He did. And he brought Isabel with him. Now they've been working on this in their spare time for a couple of weeks.

Let's see where this goes.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Pangea and the history of artistic gymnastics

.....................................What do these items have in common?

  • The Berlin Wall
  • Phinneas Gage
  • The history of artistic gymnastics
  • Prince Karim Aga Khan
  • D-Day
  • Pangea and Alfred Wegner
  • The Big Bang
  • Puerto Rico

This is the list of research topics chosen by the 6th year students in one of our upper elementary classes. I asked each of them where their interest came from to pursue that particular topic. I'll bet you can match the explanation to the topic:

  • "I've been a gymnast for nine years."
  • "I'm going to Puerto Rico over spring break."
  • "My grandfather was in the army during World War II."
  • "I've always been interested in cosmology and theories of the universe."
  • "We had a lesson on brain damage. It was a random conversation during a geometry lesson. A lot of times that happens. We learn lots of interesting things that way."
  • "He's the spiritual leader of our religion."
  • "I was just looking through a history book and it looked interesting."
  • "I don't know." (And then one of her classmates said to her, "You've always been interested in Pangea and plate tectonics--ever since we watched that film in lower elementary.")

Wait a minute! What are these kids learning? Are we teaching cosmology or geography or world religions or European history or freaky happenings or sports? Actually, what they are learning is "self-discipline and organization to manage one's own work and drive it through to successful conclusion." Remember that from yesterday's reference to the "21st century skills" school reform movement , and the question "How do you teach that?"

The most concrete explanation is that these students are learning "research skills." As 6th year students, they are working on a "long research project," one requiring at least 60 note cards. The ability to locate and filter information from multiple sources in different media is a critical intellectual skill for 21st century students and adults.

Equally important is the skill of self-management. I say skill because it can be developed by giving students the opportunity to make choices to influence what they are working on, when they are doing it and under what conditions. When I joined these students today to talk with them about their work, one group was sitting at a peninsula-shaped counter drinking hot chocolate and working on their research projects. Another group was sitting at a table across the room. They were working on vocabulary words they had identified during a reading of Shakespeare's The Tempest. The classroom assistant was sitting at her table, being available but not intrusive. No one needed her help while I was there. The rest of the class, the 4th and 5th year students accompanied by their teacher, left this morning on a bus for San Antonio.

The scene I describe above is an archetypal one for Montessori upper elementary classrooms here at Post Oak and around the country. It works because these students have been groomed in the subtle balance of freedom and responsibility. They have learned self-management, and continue to expand their skills in this area as the projects become larger and more complex.

This is how you teach self-management, and it is why I said yesterday that traditional schools will need to renovate their fundamental structures in order to teach 21st century skills.

A little note about student choices: you could parse that list in different ways. How about the spectrum from concrete to abstract? How about the level of personal involvement and experience vs. generic curiosity? How about the germination of previously planted seeds? How about the pursuit of long-term interest?

There is no way that any list of topics chosen by the teacher could have anticipated the connections that led these students to the topics they chose. Teachers often ask, "How can I motivate students?" Evidently this is a common problem in schools. What teachers really mean is, "How can I get students to do what I want them to?"

It is not just school structures that must be changed in order to teach 21st century skills. It is also the role of the teacher, the expectations of control, and the relationship between the adult and the child.

Is it any wonder that Montessori grads are showing up as entrepenurial shapers of the culture? http://www.postoakschool.org/images/postoak/News/2006-07/2006-12-01-PON.pdf Once you learn to control yourself, you are positioned to take on the world.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

21st century wrangle

The battle is on again. This time the front is called "21st Century Skills". When Russia launched Sputnik, beating America into space in 1957, it caused a national crisis. Fingers were pointed at our schools: they were obviously failing us. School reform moved to the front burner. Top scientists convened at Woods Hole, Massachusetts to rewrite high school science curricula;
"new math" challenged traditional teachers and parents alike; and the "open classroom" concept led to the construction of thousands of new school buildings to accommodate this new thinking In the midst of all this, Montessori education was re-introduced to the United States. Among these reforms of the late '50's, only Montessori survives, perhaps because it was already a proven idea, with 50 years of field work under its belt by 1957.

Today it is the global economy, not sputnik that has grabbed us by the scalp. We are falling behind! Our schools are obviously failing us! We need reform! Sound familiar?

"There's a dark little joke exchanged by educators with a dissident streak: Rip Van Winkle awakens in the 21st century after a hundred-year snooze and is, of course, utterly bewildered by what he sees. Men and women dash about, talking to small metal devices pinned to their ears. Young people sit at home on sofas, moving miniature athletes around on electronic screens. Older folks defy death and disability with metronomes in their chests and with hips made of metal and plastic. Airports, hospitals, shopping malls--every place Rip goes just baffles him. But when he finally walkes into a schoolroom, the old man knows exactly where he is. 'This is a school,' he declares. 'We used to have these back in 1906. Only now the blackboards are green.' (Time 12.18.2006)"

The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind narrowed focus onto basic skills, and ensured compliance via high stakes testing. These reforms made schools even more recognizable to Rip Van Winkle, and precipitated a new wave of school reform ideas.

An organization called Partnership for 21st Century Skills has the most memorable new name in school reform today, but they're not alone. Perhaps you've read Tough Choices or Tough Times by The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce . Or Time's "How to bring our schools out of the 20th century." Or Five Minds for the Future by Harvard's Howard Gardner . Or College Learning for the New Global Century . Or Dan Pink's best seller, A Whole New Mind .

Each of these sources identifies a set of skills required so our kids will thrive, and our country prosper in the future. Tough Choices or Tough Times calls for:

  • creativity and innovation,

  • facility with the use of abstractions,

  • self-discipline and organization to manage one's own work and drive it through to successful conclusion,

  • leadership,

  • and the ability to function well as a member of a team.

(Thanks to Pat Bassett, Executive Director of NAIS for this summary.)

All reforms get bludgeoned. We humans resist change, and our most change-resistant institution is the school. Check out Jay Matthews, education writer for The Washington Post: "Latest doomed pedagogical fad: 21st century skills." At the heart of Matthew's criticism is the absence of curriculum content in the 21st century skills agenda -- and a glaring absence of "How To".

For example, how do you teach "self-discipline and organization to manage one's own work and drive it through to successful conclusion?" Traditional schools say that is why homework is assigned, so they are already accomplishing this objective. No change needed.

I disagree, and so do the leaders of the 21st century skills movement. Freedom and responsibility are both required for students to develop self-discipline and the ability to manage one's own work. When the teacher mandates what work is to be done, for how long, and under what circumstances, students have no opportunity to manage their own work. In order to give students such opportunities, we must renovate the organizational structures of the classroom. The crystal cathedral is not built of concrete blocks.

As much as I agree with the objectives of "21st century education," I must also acknowledge that Jay Matthews is right. There is no evidence in the 21st century skills literature of how to accomplish their agenda. There is no description of what a 21st century school should look like, of how it will function, of how it actually differs from Rip Van Winkle Academy.

This is why Montessori education is so extraordinary. As a scientist, Dr. Montessori began by observing children. She identified their characteristics as learners. She was a pioneer of what we now call developmental psychology. From that starting point, she developed learning materials, a curriculum, and a set of pedagogical principles. She trained teachers in the Montessori method, and established an organization to grant credentials to teachers and to accredit schools. No other approach to education integrates developmental psychology, educational philosophy, curriculum content, classroom materials, teacher training, and school accreditation. By doing so, Montessori education bridges the agenda of 21st century education reformers, and the critics who demand attention to content and methodology.