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The Montessori Adolescent Program
Nov 2nd, 2008 by Steve Thorpe

Gardening occupation students

The Montessori Adolescent Program

Montessori middle schools aim to foster the innate tendencies of adolescents, to provide the opportunity for them engage in meaningful work, to allow them to come to know themselves in the context of a community, and to give full expression to their sensitivity to social justice and personal dignity. Our programs provide our young adults with the tools and opportunities that they will need to become meaningful participants in our world while building the skills, confidence, and vision that will enable them to follow their dreams, united in head, hand, and heart.

Adolescents need an environment that takes a developmental approach to this sometimes tumultuous period that spans childhood and adulthood. They need a place that is much closer to the adult world than traditional education provides. Montessori adolescent programs seek to create an environment in which students experience themselves as knowledgeable, capable, and confident while engaged in activity that is inherently meaningful. Maria Montessori spoke of this process as “valorization”, through which students develop confidence in their abilities and accomplishments through real work within the context of a community. It comes about when one knows, through his or her own experience, that she or he in capable. We want our students to leave our Montessori programs practicing the skills, acquiring the insights, and developing the social ease they will need in order to successfully navigate the adult world and help solve the problems confronting us, both today and in the future.

Bee-keeping occupation students

The Montessori middle school provides a project-based approach to education that puts students in charge of their environment, taking on occupation such as gardening, bee keeping, and food preparation, as well giving then tools for economic independence through the microeconomy. As they take on adult-like roles and responsibilities within the various areas of the program, they learn the science, math, and practical skills necessary for them to become as progressively more independent in their ventures.

Adolescents need a community in which they can learn, practice, and master the social skills that will open up pathways of leadership for them in the adult world. These skills include communication, teamwork, conflict resolution as well as entrepreneurial skills and project management. Montessori adolescents lean these skills “on the job”, side by side with caring adults, as they participate in goal driven, project based programs.

Collaboration between Montessori middle school practitioners in the elaboration and fulfillment of this vision is the primary goal of Montessori Life.

Some Strategies for Keeping Work Going in the Upper Elementary
Nov 1st, 2008 by Steve Thorpe

Upper Elementary:

Some Strategies for Keeping Work Going

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Paying close attention to what captures a child’s interest is one of the most effective tools for motivation.

1.   Make sure you present a large number of lessons in every subject area to every child. Give these lessons with the attitude that you are trying to “hook” the children’s interest; it is up to you to capture the child’s attention rather than it being up to the child to find your lessons interesting. Actively work to “find the way” with each child.

2. Through both observation and conversation, find out what each child is interested in and present lessons, create research opportunities, and encourage exploration of these interests.

3.  Search for the underlying cause of the child’s lack of motivation. There is almost always a cause and it usually involves a skill or set of skills that the child feels insecure about. Children like to do what they are good at and shun areas were they feel incompetent. If children successfully shun a topic for long enough, they can prevent themselves from developing their skills in that area and can set themselves up for feeling even further behind. We could address this vicious cycle by forcing the child to perform through assignments, but the gentler, more organic, and ultimately better way is to help the child identify the stumbling blocks and then help him or her work to overcome them. When we give assignments out of our inability to address the underlying problem, we often strengthen the child’s negative association with that area of study and shut them down in that and other areas of life. Often, we also create an adversarial relationship in which the child if forced to submit to the will of the adult.

4.  Set the expectation that everyone works to the best of their abilities. Follow this up with individual conferences in which you discuss each child’s work and set some goals with the child. If a child doesn’t want to follow up on their lessons, then it becomes their job to figure out what they are going to work on. Lack of work then becomes a problem that you work together to solve. Try to find good work partners to help and encourage the child. Try setting daily goals and then evaluate, with the child, what prevented them from focusing or what helped them achieve concentration. Make a list of the problems and solve them together, one by one. You may have to work towards creating a more harmonious classroom culture because social anxiety can make concentration on work nearly impossible for some children. We have to work hard in order to create and maintain emotionally supportive places of learning in our ever changing modern world.

Peer-support creates a much stronger learning environment.

5.  Check to make sure that there is a wide variety of work experiences available to all of the children. We increase the chance that children will unlock a hidden talent or discover and unknown passion when they are allowed to work in a wide variety of contexts. Raising chickens, going on camping trips, playing sports, creating art, performing music, cooking, model making all have the potential to ignite a child’s interests. The goal is to find something that the children are good at and enjoy doing. This becomes an arena through which they can attain mastery. The more paths that we open to the children, the greater the chance that we will be able to ignite the child’s interests and fan the flames of knowledge.

6.  Work to create a supportive class culture that is enthusiastic about learning. We can achieve this by encouraging the children, giving a lot f inspiring and interesting lessons, supporting the children’s own explorations, and setting high standards. When the culture of the class is elevated, then children learn to support their peers. Prevent children from forming non-working groups that socially reward each other for not working.

7.  Help your children set individual goals and then help them explore ways to become accountable to themselves. The goals are always negotiable, but children should be held to a high standard. Always assume that if a child is resisting work, it is because there is some part of them that feels inadequate, they have other unmet needs that are siphoning off their energy, or they truly lack interest and needs more engaging or a wider variety of lessons and work choices.

Copyright © 2008 Steve Thorpe. All rights reserved.
“The teacher, if indeed wise, does not bid you to enter the house of their wisdom, but leads you to the threshold of your own mind.”  – Khalil Gibran
Peace & Montessori Education
Oct 7th, 2008 by Steve Thorpe

‘Casa de Bambini opened in Rome, Italy in 1906.

Peace & Montessori Education

Six months after Maria Montessori opened her first Casa de Bambini in the San Lorenzo Quarter of Rome in 1906, her work was an international sensation. Kings, queens, and dignitaries from all over Europe came to witness the miracle of the children at work in the first environment prepared by Maria Montessori. Years earlier, when working with “defective” children living in asylums, she observed how animated children became when they had something to manipulate, even if it were crumbs from their previous meal. From 1899 to 1901 she was given charge of a school in which she was responsible for educating such “defective” children. While she received great praise for her success in helping some of the children to learn to read and write and even perform better than “normal” children on state exams, she began to contemplate what could so possibly deviate these “normal” children to such an extent as to allow her “defective” students to out-perform them.

Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori

A recently built housing project in Rome was being terrorized by the countless children left behind by their parents each day. Left with no supervision, hordes of these children were rampaging through the streets, vandalizing property, and getting into untold mischief. It was decided that they should all be gathered into one room during the day and watched over by someone who could keep them out of trouble. When Maria Montessori was approached for this task, she knew this was a great opportunity to try out her theories and methods on “normal’ children. The results were astonishing and her discovery of the child became a worldwide phenomenon.

Maria Montessori has shown us that the true nature of the child and the human is one of peace. If the conditions are right, inner harmony will naturally develop in our personalities, enabling us to create outer harmony in our community. Maria has shown us, through her own example, that it is not enough to attain peace in just one school, one community, or even one social class. What would have happened if Dr. Montessori had been content to work only with “defective” children or only Italian children?

Maria lived in a century of great destruction, surviving two world wars. In the times leading up to the Second World War, Mussolini had wanted all of the schools in Italy to follow the Montessori Method. He was interested in the external results only, similar to some parents today who send their children to Montessori schools only to outperform their counterparts in public schooling. But Maria had a larger vision than Italian Nationalism. She saw her schools and her methods as the heritage of all of humanity and a possible way to overcome the superficial divisions that had thrown the world into upheaval and destruction. She fled Italy and eventually settled in India where she had been invited to stay by the Theosophical Society. It was there, against the backdrop of the World War II, that she developed the Montessori Elementary Curriculum. She carried with her not only the sensibilities that had shaped all of her previous work, but an urgent mission to lay a course for humanity out of its current madness and into a rebirth of culture and of the spirit.

'Geometric Insets' were among the first Montessori's materials

'Geometric insets', teaching materials created by Maria Montessori, have been in use worldwide for over a century

The Montessori elementary classroom works to cultivate peace through the appropriate development of the intellect, the heart, and the will. The mind is expanded through cosmic education, the heart through the children’s participation in the community of the classroom, and the will through the liberty afforded to the children. The freedom that children have in the Montessori classroom is the true key to Montessori education, for without giving the children the liberty to pursue their own inner voices, the rest would be an imposition and would not allow the discovery of their innermost nature—that of peace and love.

On an intellectual level, Montessori education seeks to give the children as open and all-encompassing a perspective of the universe as is possible. The elementary years open up with the Great Stories, telling of the origins of the Cosmos, the beginnings of life out of the primordial seas, the coming of humans onto the scene, and the subsequent development of language and mathematical thinking. These stories are meant to awaken the children’s imaginations and help them see how they are part of the vast, ongoing story of creation. They place the children’s current culture within the vast context of, not only human history, but cosmic history. The children come to see the fundamental needs of humans and all of the different ways they have been meet over the milennia, or even the variety of ways they are met by different people today. They come to see that we are all world citizens with a common heritage, and that we have similar hopes, dreams, and fears. This open-mindedness about other peoples inoculates children against the narrow pride of racism, nationalism, or any of the other isms, in the name of which people have waged war.

Similarly, we study all of the world’s religions and show how they are different ways of answering the same basic set of human questions. No path is so elevated as to be seen as higher than the others, nor are the various religions stripped of their uniqueness and marginalized into just another set of ideas that “some people believe”. All are honored for their contribution within or to the ongoing story of the humanity.

Turn-of-the-Century Montessori Classroom

Turn-of-the-Century Montessori Classroom

The study of history, culture, and religion is in many ways patterned after biology, for it is the study of successive forms and their contribution to the greater whole that will prepare humanity to grapple with the complexities of modern social problems. Biology is taught with an eye towards the discovery of each life form’s “Cosmic Task” or way in which in contributes to the whole. The plant provides oxygen for animals just by doing what comes naturally to it: by breathing. It also, by making food for itself in its leaves with the help of sunlight, provides all the food that sustains the animals and fungi. Not only do plants have this task, but each species of plant has its own cosmic task. Some contain chemicals that help cure diseases in humans and animals. Some provide homes for desert owls, while others help retain groundwater, supporting a whole ecology. Human life is an important part of the web of life, but everything here has an existence and purpose that goes far beyond fulfilling our needs and desires. The Cosmos is a story and we are a part of it. We each have a cosmic task as well, but humans are unique in that we choose our task. Peace and sustainability can only come about if we choose wisely.

Outdoor class in progress

'Casa de Bambini'

Montessori education promises to give the child the world to explore. There is little room for harboring the prejudices and arrogances that have divided humanity throughout the centuries. Various religions and nationalities are transformed from targets of suspicion into areas of interest. There is enough room in the mind of a Montessori child to accommodate many peoples, many perspectives, and many ways of life. The vastness of mind cultivated by exploring the cosmos is matched by the vastness of heart that comes from being a part of the Montessori classroom community.

From a functionalist perspective, the traditional school system, based on the Prussian military model, was set up to train children to be clock-punchers within a bureaucratic corporate system. At best, the lining up, responding to the bell, completing assignments with as much attention to following directions as to the content of the work, grades, and authoritative discipline were meant to raise a class of middle managers, capable to carrying out orders, of following company policy, and of organizing the workplace according to ordered productivity centered around the omnipresent clock. As for the rest, the basic skills—reading writing, and arithmetic—would help them get a job within this order. To its credit, it opened the doors of universities to any who were capable, but what kind of nation is this system trying to create? At the turn of the century, the resounding answer would have been a nation of order takers. Although this is no longer the stated goal, the results are the same.

Montessori teaching materials

Montessori teaching materials

If you looked at Montessori education from this same perspective, what would you see? A classroom in which children problem solve, grappling with real life issues, while pursuing their own interests. They work in small groups, or “teams”, negotiating their roles and determining the best course of action. They are learning how to work with other’s strengths and weaknesses. They are learning how to assess themselves and how to acquire the skills or knowledge they need in order to carry out a project. They are learning, through their own experience, how to take an idea and make it a reality, whether it is a story, a play production, a go-cart, or a science fair experiment. From a functionalist perspective, Montessori education is preparing both the small innovative business teams of the future as well as the corporate executives.

Maria Montessori was beloved worldwide for her contributions to the field of education

Maria Montessori received worldwide recognition for her contributions to the field of education.

Maria Montessori’s vision of future society went well beyond the preparation of her students for any particular career. Her idea was to prepare her students for the creation of a new humanity. The Montessori classroom provides an environment in which peace, understanding, compassion, respect, and responsibility are cultivated. All of these virtues prepare the children to live in a more humane society, while giving them the skills to help bring it about.

Because the children work collaboratively in small groups, they learn the skills necessary to negotiate and to work together. They are being directly prepared for participation in a democracy and acquiring the emotional intelligence necessary to live happy, successful lives. Frustration over unsuccessfully meeting one’s needs leads to conflict far more often than a lack of intellectual understanding. It is the education of the heart—hard won by experience, not through the moralizing of an adult—that will enable humanity to pass out of its current phase of reactionary utilization of force to create security. In the Montessori classroom we are preparing our future peacekeepers and diplomats. They are already among us!

The liberty that Maria Montessori speaks so highly of is the liberty for children to follow their inner voice. In the classroom they are allowed to practice making moral judgments, to voice their opinions, and to know they will be respected. They cultivate the knowledge that they have the power to put their ideas into practice, to come up with their own rules for the classroom, to work according to their own learning styles. All of this assumes a prepared environment in which the child can make authentic choices that will contribute to his or her development.

An outdoor lesson

An outdoor lesson in progress

Liberty, in and of itself, will not always tend towards a peaceful equilibrium in the community. The Montessori classroom requires a balance between freedom and responsibility. All the freedoms that the children enjoy come with a corresponding set of responsibilities that bind each child to the greater community. Children do not experience themselves as if in a vacuum, but learn the virtues of civic responsibility, environmental responsibility, and responsibility for one’s actions through immediate feedback from the environment. If the gardens are not tended, the plants will die. If a child does not pull his own weight in a project, he will certainly hear about it from the other children involved! If left to themselves, the children are capable of tremendous organizing efforts, like planning an entire camping trip, or writing, directing, and performing a play. These events are real and the consequences for poor planning or half-hearted efforts are real. Again, responsibility is learned through interaction with reality, not through the lecturing of an adult.

The adult certainly guides the children, setting boundaries and helping them become accountable for their actions, but the children still must come up the solutions to their problems. The class discusses important class issues and votes on the results. If their “motion” does not achieve the desired results, it does not fall to the wayside, but the children must again gather and discuss solutions they are willing to carry out. This is direct preparation for responsible world citizenship, something the world sorely needs.

A Montessori classroom in Tanzania

A Montessori classroom in Tanzania

The responsibilities that the children shoulder are what allow them so much freedom in the Montessori environment. When children have no responsibility for their actions, then the adult must contrive consequences and restrictions in order to keep the children in check. Vast systems of punishments and rewards have been devised to cushion children from taking responsibility for their actions. There was a famous study called “The Authoritarian Personality” published in Weimar Germany warning of the German people’s predisposition to surrender their moral authority to their “superiors.” The intricate system devised to create a disciplined populace asked for obedience at the expense of personal and moral responsibility for one’s actions. This environment made Germany ripe for National Socialism. One thing I can assure you, and sometimes to my great inconvenience, we are not creating a classroom of blind followers! The guide of a Montessori classroom must take great pleasure in observing the children exercising their will, no matter how misguided it may seem from the adult perspective. It is the only through the exercise of the will that the spirit will mature.

Commemorative Stamp

Commemorative Stamp

Montessori education is not just a system of education, but is part of a larger movement towards the development of humanity. In the prepared environment of the Montessori classroom, children’s minds are opened to the great vistas of the cosmos. They are learning about the great systems—planetary, ecological, political, economic, spiritual—and how together they weave the rich tapestry of human experience. But more importantly, our children experience themselves as an important and empowered part of a community; their ideas are valued and have the power to shape their destiny. They learn, through their own powers, how to include, accept, and work with every type of person. Montessori children experience their own wills in action, sometimes glorious, sometimes faltering, but always alive and always maturing. Maria Montessori set an example for all of humanity to follow. A path out of the desert. All we must do is follow the child!

Copyright © 2008 Steve Thorpe. All rights reserved.
A History of the Universe
Sep 19th, 2008 by Steve Thorpe

A History of the Universe

How was our universe created?

How old is it?

Why was it made and who made it?

Was it created for a reason, or did it just happen by chance?

These are questions that people have been asking for millennia.

Throughout history, we humans have developed many myths, stories, and religions to answer these questions. Around six to seven thousand years ago humans invented writing and began leaving us records of their stories about the origins of the universe.

Some say that the world was created by gods. Others say that it was created by a demon. Some people believe that the world always existed while others believe that it was formed from the body of a giant horse. People have gone to war with one another just because they answered these questions differently.

Today, many people believe that God created the universe and the world for a special purpose while many others believe that both the world and the universe evolved out of a set of scientific laws.

The story that I’m going to tell you today comes from information that scientists have put together over the last four hundred years. Beginning with the Scientific Revolution in the sixteenth century, people in Europe began thinking about the universe in a very different way.

In order to answer questions about where the universe came from and how it works, they began observing the world around them, trying to figure out what underling laws made the universe tick. They discovered that planets traveled around the Sun because of gravity. They discovered that all of the elements that make up our bodies and our planet where forged inside the nuclear furnaces of stars much like our sun. These nuclear reactors creating enough energy to light up the night sky, even though many stars are billions of light years away.

The scientific question about the origin of the universe has led scientists to believe that the universe came into being though a Big Bang.

We cannot speak about what existed before the big bang because time itself did not exist before the big bang.

We can never discover where the Big Bang took place because before the big bang there was no space and there was no place.

The big bang created both space and time.

What would it be like if time did not exist? Nothing could ever happen because there would never be a when for it to occur.

What would it be like if we lived in a universe with no space? You could never go anywhere or do anything. Nothing could ever really happen.

Imagine it.

It now seems to scientists that around thirteen billion years ago, from what looks to us like nothingness, the universe exploded into being.

In the beginning, the universe was pure energy, so hot that its temperature was near infinity.

The moment it was born, it began growing at an incredible rate. “In the first trillion-trillion-trillionth second, the universe grew a hundred million times larger and its temperature dropped from near infinity to 10,000 trillion, trillion degrees” (10).

Of all the universal forces that we know about, only two where in existence at this time: Gravity and something called the unified superforce.

As the universe expanded and began cooling down, the unified superforce began to unravel into three separate forces and this unraveling caused the universe to expand at an even greater rate than before In a period of time so small that it is impossible to count, the universe expanded to a hundred trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion times it previous size.

Suddenly this expansion began to slow down, causing the universe to cool down even more. Then something truly remarkable happened. Some of this cooling energy transformed itself into the very first tiny particles of matter. Gravitons, bosons, neutrinos, gluons, photons, electrons, and primordial black holes may all came into being along with many other types of particles that we don’t even know about.

Montessori Precipitation demo

Some of these particles lasted a few moments and then dissolved into pure energy. Some were unstable and decayed into others, smaller particles. Some of these earliest particles were stable enough to survive, and this is where the trouble began.

No sooner had matter come into being when a terrible war broke out between two very different kinds of particle. The outcome of this battle would decide the fate of every solid, liquid, and gas that would make up all the matter in our universe.

This was the epic battle between mater and antimatter. It was a terrible war, costly to all sides. Whenever matter and antimatter come into contact with each other, they are both annihilated and return to a state of pure energy. Equal amounts of matter and antimatter where created, but anti- mater particles seemed to decay slightly faster than matter particles, so in the end particles of matter outnumbered anti-matter. So while most of the matter originally created by the universe was destroyed in this battle, there was enough matter left over to form all of the stars, plants, and galaxies in our universe.

This entire battle took place in less than three minutes.

After these first three minutes of the universe’s existence, it had cooled down enough for leptons and quarks to form the very first protons and neutrons. Helium, Hydrogen, and Lithium where all created, but in small numbers. These would be the only particles created as result of the universe cooling down. Everything else that we know about would have to wait until the four fundamental forces could get together and figure out a way to create different kinds of atoms with the laws that they had been given.

For the next three hundred thousand years the universe continued to expand and to cool down. Eventually the universe got cool enough for innumerable small particles to join together and form atoms. When enough of the energy had became matter, the rest of the energy, in the form of light, shot out in all directions and the universe was no longer a fiery inferno. For the first time, universe had become clear and was completely black.

Slowly gravitational force began pulling hydrogen and helium atoms together. As small gas clouds began forming, their gravitational pull increased, pulling even more particles in. Soon huge clouds began to form that where so humongous that the atoms in the center where being crushed together with tremendous force.

When this force became unbearable, the atoms lost their individuality and where crushed together forming larger atoms. This process of nuclear fusion releases a tremendous amount of energy in the form of heat and light. This heat and light are the burning of a star.

As stars and galaxies formed, light once again could be seen in the universe. These early stars grew huge, lived for billions of years and made many of the other elements that are so familiar to us on Earth. Carbon, Silicon, Iron. These starts eventually exploded, spewing out elements and gasses that coalesced into planets and other stars.

Our star is a second generation star that formed from the remains of an earlier generation of stars.

Stay tuned for the story of the Sun and the Earth, coming soon!

Copyright © 2008 Steve Thorpe. All rights reserved.

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