17 03, 2014

Maya’s Argument

By |2018-12-17T11:37:40-06:00March 17th, 2014|Families, Learning to Write, Parenting|0 Comments

Writers Celebrations punctuate our school year giving festive endings to the studies of particular genres in our Writers Workshops. In a Writers Celebration, groups of students gather together with their parents to share completed and polished works after weeks of drafts, critiques and revisions. Parents and kids share comments, questions and accolades for each young writer.IMG_0120

Our 3rd/4th graders recently celebrated a challenging month-long workshop on personal essays. Each student writer chose an idea s/he cared about and used three pieces of evidence to construct a logical argument for the reader. Sustaining a single idea, supporting it through several paragraphs and completing the essay as a unified whole is truly challenging work for eight and nine-year-olds!

There was a very poignant moment when Maya, having explained why vacations are both fun and educational, read her third reason.Maya Reading

It is good for you, because vacation is about getting my family back together and spending time together. On the Disney cruise line, it got my family back together for 5 days, and then we stayed at a hotel in Orlando. Jacob and Dad went golfing; we (Mom and I) relaxed and watched TV and read books together. We spent a lot of time in the pool. When we are at home it is not like vacation, because we have to go to school and work and spend a lot of time apart. So vacation is important for family.

A great writer speaks to a timeless truth and makes an emotional connection to her audience. When it was time for feedback, more than one parent confessed to being a little teary. I was personally moved by the sweet earnest quality of Maya’s essay.

I thought of this moment the other day when I read a summary of psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair’s address to the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) conference, taking place at just about the same time as our Writers Celebration. Steiner Adair is a therapist and instructor at the Harvard Medical School who researches the effects of technology on our kids and our relationships.

Are we living in a time in which we are more connected than ever and, paradoxically, more isolated? she asked.

According to Bridget Janicki, who blogged from the conference, Steiner-Adair interviewed kids, parents, school leaders, young adults and even preschoolers around the country. She was blown away by this finding:
Children at every single age group use the same words to describe being in a family — and they all speak to feeling alone. It’s sad, because they cannot get their parents’ attention. They feel frustrated that at a moment when they need a connection, their parents’ eyes are in the screen.

And then, a couple of days ago, I saw this headline from Don’t Text While Parenting — It Will Make You Cranky. The story described a study from Boston Medical Center showing that parents absorbed in their devices throughout an entire meal had increasingly negative interactions with their children. Since children learn their primary social skills from interacting with their parents, the researchers wondered what the long-term effects of such digital absorption on children’s social development might be.

In our fast-paced and digital world, Maya reminds us that children need and desire deep connection to parents and family. And even amidst all the attractions and distractions of Disney World, the most delicious and memorable moments might just be spent hanging out with your parents.

19 09, 2013


By |2018-12-17T11:37:43-06:00September 19th, 2013|Experiential Learning, Parenting|0 Comments

Not too long ago, I visited with some friends who had just adopted a 20-month old daughter from Korea. We went to the local playground, where the girl squatted down, as only a flexible toddler can, to examine a pile of pebbles on the ground. She picked one up, held it between thumb and forefinger, and, staring intently, she slowly turned it round and round to view it from different angles. She carefully replaced the pebble, scanned the remaining pebbles most deliberately, and then picked up another, which she proceeded to examine with equal scrutiny.

Ever an observer of children, I was fascinated by the child’s sense of wonder and sheer pleasure at the shape, look and feel of the pebbles. Totally engrossed in her observations, this little girl was in that state of intense concentration that Mihaly Cskikszentmihalyi calls flow, that focussed, don’t-know-time-is-passing state when we do our most creative and productive work. Left to her own devices, I believe she might have studied those pebbles for a quite a long time. But her new parents, eager to interact and to show her all the great things in the playground, lacked patience for her explorations. She knew very little English, so Dad took her hand and led her off to the swings.

This story could now go in many directions. I could point out something we all know — that children are fascinated with pebbles and sand and water and sticks and cardboard boxes — and they do not need most of the toys that we purchase for them. Just this week, a group of boys in After Ancona was having a grand imaginative time tucked under the bushes in the playground collaborating on what they could build with the sticks they found there.

Or I could point out that Montessori teachers believe in following the child, letting him choose his activities and giving him the the time to become engrossed. Maria Montessori called that intense focus absorption. Rather than draw a child away from what he’s interested in to pursue an adult agenda, why not help him to embellish or extend his own? When children select the right materials for themselves, they become absorbed in serious exploration for long periods of time. From those experiences grow concentration and problem-solving — critical faculties for learning. And locked in a pebble or a pile of sticks is a world of scientific studies.

IMG_1238Concentration, absorption, fascination with everyday materials – these are not only for preschoolers. Around the country, educators are rediscovering what progressive educators have always known: that authentic, hands-on, child-centered investigations are critical for building creative capacities in our kids. All were at play — along with creativity, problem-solving, collaboration and cooperation – when our 3rd/4th graders began the Global Cardboard Challenge ( last Friday. The projects spilled out of the classrooms and into the corridors as our eight and nine-year-olds worked non-stop for five hours designing, building and decorating arcade games and other constructions. On Flex Days to come, they will critique, refine and field test their products, and this is just the first of many such design challenges to come at Ancona.

There’s nothing wrong with leading a child to the swings, but in our fast-paced and material world, it’s critical that we provide him the time and the places for wonder and flow.

5 09, 2013


By |2013-09-05T12:00:19-06:00September 5th, 2013|Parenting|2 Comments

Maybe more than any other generation of parents, today’s moms and dads seem bombarded with worries about whether they are doing a good job or making the right choices about their children. If parents only do more for their children, will they somehow insure success or greatness?

In an excellent New York Times essay on parenting last month, psychologist Madeline Levine reported on research indicating that on average, children do better academically, psychologically and socially when their parents hit a “sweet spot” between being too permissive and not involved enough or too controlling and overly involved.

“Reasonably supporting a child’s autonomy and limiting interference results in better academic and emotional outcomes,” she said.  And while Levine was advising parents, I couldn’t help but think about the genius of Maria Montessori, who designed her classrooms 100 years ago with that exact purpose in mind — supporting a child’s autonomy and her developing sense of self.  Montessori based her educational theories on her own keen observations of children, but it’s reassuring that social science research bears out our most fundamental beliefs about education and the young.

Autonomy and motivation go hand-in-hand.  This is true for children, and it’s true for adults, too.  Daniel Pink describes this well-researched phenomenon in is his book Drive.  When adults have autonomy, they engage creatively and productively with their work, and they strive for mastery.  So do children in a Montessori classroom.  Given the freedom to choose her works, a child will return to an activity over and over again, until she’s mastered it.  And, having mastered the basics and with perhaps a little guidance from the teacher, she’ll transform the work and proceed on a path of her own design.  

Some parents think that constantly praising their child or her work will result in “self-esteem,” but actually, the opposite is true.  “This may seem counterintuitive,” Levine says, “but praising children’s talents and abilities seems to rattle their confidence.”

(“Wow,” a child may think.  “I really must have no talent if my mom wants me to believe this mediocre painting is so great.”)

I learned this from Ancona’s wise Montessori teachers when I first came to teach here.  They did not praise the children’s work, because they knew that the best appraisal is the child’s own, and they did not want to usurp the child’s own satisfaction with her work.  Nor did they wish to set her on the path of working primarily for the external praise, because sooner or later, that motivation will flag.

“If pushing, direction, motivation and reward always come from the outside, the child never has the opportunity to craft an inside,” Levine says.  And what a loss that would be!

15 11, 2012


By |2018-12-17T11:37:48-06:00November 15th, 2012|Experiential Learning, Learning to Read, Parenting|0 Comments

Prelude:  It turns out that writing a blog, even just one entry, is more fun than I ever imagined.  My humble thanks to everyone who has read the blog and/or offered a comment.

Walking through the Ancona Library the other day, I heard Miss Marsha, our Librarian, buzzing like a bee and growling like bear, so I thought I’d stop and see what was going on.  She was reading a Big Book — a book big enough for everyone to see easily — to a group of three and four-year-olds in her most animated storyteller voice.  She paused and pointed to a picture, asking the children what it was.  Several children called out fly; some called out bug; and one young voice said dragonfly, which it was.

The child who knew she was looking at a dragonfly possesses a valuable form of learning capital:  background knowledge.  Because she already recognizes a dragonfly, she has a head start on understanding the story and on recognizing the word when she comes across it in print.  A recent New York Times article examined the link between vocabulary development and possible bias in high school admissions testing.   The author quoted the education theorist E. D. Hirsch saying there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age 6 is the single highest correlate with later success.

What does it take to give a child a great head start with background knowledge?  Things that are both free and precious:  time, patience and experience.  Real conversations with children build their vocabularies and their understandings of the world.  They bring those rich vocabularies to their early reading experiences.  Montessori and Progressive schools emphasize experience to create these authentic learning connections for children, but parents play a critical role, too.

Just think about a trip to the gas station.  What is a pump? How does it work?  Where does the gas come from? What is gas, anyway? Why does the car need it?  What is fuel?  What’s a gauge?  What other things need fuel?

Or think about making pancakes.  How do we get eggs and milk?  What are the parts of an egg?  How is wheat turned into flour?  What is maple syrup?  Why do we beat the eggs? Why do we measure the ingredients? The possibilities are endless.  Such conversations not only develop a child’s vocabulary, they develop her curiosity, her competence and her sense of wonder about the world.

We know from brain science that emotional connections facilitate learning, so learning with one’s parent is powerful.  On a hike in a Wisconsin nature reserve a few weeks ago, I saw a mother wade deep into the prairie flowers to carefully examine a bug with her preprimary-aged child.  They looked at its markings, talked about its wings and antennae, discussed what it was doing on its leaf and looked around to find more.  There is no workbook page or app that can substitute for that kind of experience (although, a mobile device could be very useful for identifying the bug if you don’t know what it is.).

There are no limits to these kinds of conversations, either.  I had a high school friend who is now an M.I.T. physicist.  His father was also a scientist, and I can remember him telling me as I struggled with physics that he simply grew up understanding the 1st Law of Thermodynamics.  Now that’s some background knowledge!


17 10, 2012

Lessons from The Wind in the Willows

By |2018-12-17T11:37:49-06:00October 17th, 2012|Learning to Read, Parenting|2 Comments

Prelude:  We at Ancona educate confident risk-takers, and with that in mind, I am hereby introducing my first blog.  I will be sharing thoughts, musings and experiences about education, parenting and kids that arise from my 40+ years of teaching and leading The Ancona School.  They will, I hope, be of interest, particularly to parents trying to navigate today’s fraught childrearing environment. 

Lessons from The Wind in the Willows

For my daughter’s fifth or sixth birthday, her uncle gave her a hard-bound copy of the children’s classic The Wind in the Willows.  Nadia was actually quite a good reader for her age, but she had no particular interest in this thick book with pages and pages of print and few illustrations, even when I tried reading it aloud to her.

It sat forgotten and unloved on her bookshelves amongst many well-worn and much-read books until one evening, many months later, I was sitting on my bed working my way through a dense text for a course, underlining and writing notes in the margins.  Nadia appeared with The Wind in the Willows and a pencil.  She climbed up on the bed, leaned into me and proceeded to page through her book, underlining and making scribbly notes in the margins.  I was a little aghast that she was marking up this quite lovely book, but I understood that she was trying out what seemed to her to be an adult kind of reading.  I also understood that, at that moment, The Wind in the Willows was nearly as unintelligible to her as a graduate school text.

Part of the genius of children is that they are keen observers of our every move.  We know from research that a good indicator of reading success is growing up in a home where there are numerous books, and the adults are readers. Children need to see adults reading – not just to the children, but because they read and love reading for their own purposes.   I tried to model reading and to make it a central part of our lives in many more conscious ways:   reading to her daily, of course; giving books as holiday and birthday gifts; browsing together in the library and bookstore; bringing books to the beach or restaurant; and discussing my own book choices and trading books with friends and family when she was around.

This quite sweet memory of The Wind in the Willows came back to me as we prepared for Literacy Night this week.  Many parents today are so anxious about when their children will read and whether the books are hard enough, that I fear they lose sight of the real goal:  to set the stage for a child’s lifetime of reading.  I hope parents will remember that children who love to read grow up in households that love to read.

While reading to and reading with children definitely supports learning to read, it should never be a source of stress, dissatisfaction or disappointment.  Reading together can and should deepen the emotional and intellectual bonds between parent and child; I can still remember that warm little body pressed up against mine.  And my adult daughter and I still exchange favorite books.

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