Tuesday, June 23, 2009

From NAMTA to Lena Woods to The Moveable Alphabet

The passing on of knowledge, of experiences and of insights is as significant as the passing of the Olympic torch, it just happens much more often. I have been reading Lena Wood's blog lately and love all that she offers - from Montessori insights (she is taking her AMI Elementary training), to poetry, to music and so much more. She is so good at hunting and gathering tidbits of knowledge and then sharing them with the greater community at large.

What I want to pass on today is a partial quote she noted when she was recently in Seattle at the NAMTA (North America Montessori Teacher's Association) conference. The lecture from which she quotes was given by Jim Webster, a former upper-elementary, Montessori teacher, and now adolescent teacher at the Hershey Montessori Farm School. His presentation was on the relationship between the teacher and the child in the elementary classroom:

"We love the universe and everything in it with a fierceness and tenderness and passion and it becomes so alive in us that we cannot help but share it with the children with whom we work.

She [Montessori] writes: “It does not suffice for the teacher to limit herself to loving and understanding the child. She must first love and understand the universe. She must therefore prepare herself and work at it.”

It was not until I learned to feel the earth turning beneath me that I could teach the seasons. It is not only our stories that guide their imaginations outward. There is more to teaching than the placing of words and pictures before them. They search the field of your being. It is when you are full in heart and mind with wonder and gratitude, when you yourself have traveled far to find your own place in the Great Becoming, that they are best able to see along the boundaries of shadowed time, or into the center of the atom, or to follow the footprints which mark the sand and soil from the edge of the primordial sea to the classroom door, and to know the deeper truth and worth of the stories you tell.

We are asked to make conscious and dear all that is small and infinite, linear and turning, music and the dance, and the silence…the grand and the mysterious, the unfolding destiny whose very surface is the minds of the children who sit at our feet."

I felt my heart beating through the thin knit of my summer sweater when I read it. I knew I had to share it with others. Thank you Lena for being so good at taking notes.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

"Real Bubbles Pop" : New Insights On A Familiar Work

I occassionally find time to sit and simply listen to a child articulate their scientific findings to me. That happened during the last week of school.

This particular child has a rather soft voice when she speaks in the classroom so listening to her sometimes sounds as if your are simply listening to her speak softly to herself. This is especially true when she is captivated by a work. Thinking back on it now, I remember asking myself whether I was eavesdropping on a private conversation. Yet, I know what my role was then and now. I am the chronicler of her discoveries. I am her scribe.

The first time I saw the look of astonishment on her face was months ago. She was doing work with magnets. As the lesson had instructed, she taped a string tied to a paper clip to her table. Then she took a large magnet and drew the paper clip up high with it. The moment of astonishment came when the paper clip hovered just below the magnet. The magnet held the clip up off the table but was not touching it.

Perhaps I wasn't the only one in the room that saw the beauty of this young girl's face when she had performed magnetic magic. Another student requested to paint her portrait not long after. I saw these two girls from across the room and snapped a picture for my own keeping.

And then, months later, this same young girl, who was mesmerized by the power of a magnet, took out the "Oil and Water Don't Mix" tray. Upon her request, I added some food coloring to the water to highlight the oil on the surface.

"See the bubbles, Miss Dyer. Some of them are so small," she said as she leaned forward to look at them.

"Are they really bubbles or more like circles of oil?" I asked.

The young girl lifted a q-tip and touched one of the bubbles.

"Real bubbles pop when you touch them. This bubble didn't so its just a circle. Its not a bubble," she decided.

I acknowledge her statement and then just sat quietly and waited and watched. It wasn't long before she was telling me more about her observations.

"Do you see, Miss Dyer, how the water is at the bottom and the oil is at the top. That is because the water sinks and the oil floats. That is like our "Sink and Float" work," she said, making another declaration of discovery.

"What would happen if you put a crab in the water. Would it get covered with oil? And would it sink or float if it was?" I asked.

"I put the crab in, but the bottom is so dark that it is hard to see anything. How can I know if it sinks or floats if I can't find it? If something falls to the bottom of the ocean you can't see it," she said as she attempted to scoop up the crab.

"Here it is. Look, it has oil all over it. I don't think crabs like having oil on their bodies," she stated.

"When people spill oil in the ocean from their boats the oil covers the fish and all of the other living things. They are trying to come up with ways to clean the oil off of them without hurting them. Some people volunteer to do work like that," I said in an equally soft voice.

"You have to be very gentle. You shouldn't hurt animals," she said as she carefully wiped the crab clean and then placed it on a small cloth, one of many I have made for the classroom.

"There is one more thing, Miss Dyer. Let me show you," she said as she began touching the small circles of oil with the spoon. "When one of the circles of oil touches another they join and make one big circle. That is like math. Two small things make one big thing. That is what I really like about this work. It makes me think of math."

The longer she stayed with the work the more "discoveries" she made and the more focused on the work she became. I wish I could sit with all my students, one on one, for longer and longer periods of time. Its just not possible. Yet, I treasure the times I able to.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Hexagon Happenings

This year's final hexagon activity was also an optical illusion. Cristina prepared the materials for this activity months ago. I had given a lesson on hexagon tessellations and happened to spin the hexagon shape from the geometry cabinet. I spun it again and then many more times. Each time that I did, I focused on the image of a circle that appeared as the hexagon spun. I taped some colored triangles on to three sections of the hexagon and spun it again. The triangles made a shape that reminded me of the nuclear warning image. Now, when I spun the hexagon shape the circle was even more obvious.

I handed the blue, construction-paper hexagons, each with a crayon nib at its center, to my students. I also gave each of them three small triangles to glue in place.

Soon, they were spinning their hexagons on the table tops. It wasn't long before I heard, "Cool, I see a circle."

I didn't get into a long discussion on why the circle was formed. I wanted to let them enjoy the eye candy of this small optical illusion. It's okay to let a child walk away without all of his or her "Whys?" answered. It gives them something to think about when they are being driven home or when they lay in bed at night thinking back on the day. Contemplative, reflective thinking is a good thing. One of my favorite things to hear from a student who has just arrived in the morning is, "I thought about that work we did yesterday and I figured it out. It makes a circle because..."

There is something so magnificent about the look of a young child's face when they have spent time figuring out something in their own mind and then drawn a conclusion from those thoughts. It is the witnessing of a child maturing. This renewed sense of self-assuredness grows within them a desire for quiet solitude. "I am comfortable alone. I have the companionship of my own thoughts."

Monday, June 15, 2009

Marshmallow Sculptures

The head of my school entered my classroom concerned that something may be wrong. "It was so quiet down here that I had to come and check that everything was alright, Miss Dyer. But, I can see now that the children are simply busy."

I had placed two pieces of black construction paper, a bowl of miniature marshmallows and a bowl of toothpicks on every table while the children were outside on the playground. When they came in several children immediately said, "Oh, we did this last year. I love this work!"

I asked them to be patient and let me give an all class lesson for first year students. I had a captivated audience. Everyone watched me construct a simple structure and then they went to work.

I informed them that they were to raise their hands if they needed their bowls refilled with marshmallows and toothpicks. It was amazing how quiet and patiently they did this. More amazing were the sculptures and structures that they carefully constructed. Some of the pieces were abstract. Others were specific things like a house or a temple.

One of my young five year olds, who is very detail oriented in all of her work, made (with absolutely no adult help) an amazing butterfly and a spider (with eight legs) hanging from its web.

Not all children complete work or complete work at the same time as their peers:

Two children couldn't finish their projects because they were overwhelmed by what they had decided they wanted to make and unable to abandon that first idea. Their work collapsed. First I suggested that they stop building and get paper to sketch out their ideas but that didn't appeal to them and was quickly rejected. Next, I tried to redirect one of the students with suggestions for alternative constructions. (ex. a bird house, a jewelry box) The child looked at me and said, "I want to make the Great Wall of China. Don't worry Miss Dyer, I can do it."

The second child who was having difficulty making anything said, "I just don't know what I want to make." She stuck toothpicks into marshmallows and then pulled them out, over and over again.

An older student used a process that I have seen her use to start and finish work before. Before she started constructing something, although most of the children had begun, she got up from her table and walked around the room. I politely inquired what she was doing and she answered, "I have a lot of ideas so before I pick one I want to walk around the classroom and just see what the others are making. I get ideas by looking at other people's work."

A few minutes later she was back at her table committed to a structure. When I stopped by she told me, "I wanted to build a temple like the one I go to, but at first I couldn't figure out how to do it. But I saw Jack put squares and triangles together to make his house and so now I know how." Some children need to visualize the process before they can began.

The two girls who were struggling to complete their structures are the youngest in their kindergarten class. This exercise, at the end of the year, reveals that they are in a place writers often find themselves. They have many ideas but do not have all the tools that they need to bring those ideas to fruition.

Writers often have great story lines running through their heads but get caught in developing the plot and not the characters or the opposite. They spend months writing short drafts that often get deleted or thrown in the trash. A successful writer sees their work as a craft that requires both imagination and structure. Writing a story outline or sketching a story board are two of my most effective means of writing and finishing a story.

Also, letting go of an idea (trying to make the Great Wall of China) can be an enormous challenge for some people. Years ago, I read an article in one of my yoga magazines about how all ideas are not great ideas. My favorite line in the article was, "Don't be a slave to an idea."

When the day was over the unfinished work by these two girls remained on their tables. The following morning the girl who wanted to make the Great Wall of China was out sick. But, the student who didn't know what she wanted to make sat down and spent the entire morning making a structure which she said was her house. "Yesterday, I forgot what I wanted to make," she explained.

This student works best alone. When all of the other students had moved on to other work and it was only her working on the marshmallow project she excelled. She is not a think tank or group project kinda of student. The truth is some children simply need their own time frame in which to be successful. That student worked all morning on her house. It was a great house!

Magnet Work Mostly for Younger Students + Repaired Link

On an especially hot afternoon, I filled two buckets with water. I then tied string to two rulers (they already had holes in them). At the end of the strings I tied and taped large magnets. I then gathered several items from the magnetic/non-magnetic work that is always available in my classroom.

I gathered my students around the two buckets of water and asked them the following question: "Does a magnetic work underwater?" Two thirds of my students answered, "No." I was glad that this work would surprise them and maintain their interest.

I showed them how to hold the magnet/fishing pole and how to lower the magnet into the water. When the magnet picked up the first object I drew it out of the water to show them.

"Oh, the magnet does work in water, Miss Dyer. Can I go fishing next?" asked one of my students and then another. Two my students quickly put on their aprons and then lowered their "fishing poles."

I was glad that my younger students enjoyed this simple science exercise so much. I had my assistant keep the older students busy on the other side of the playground so that the four years wouldn't have to hear, "That's so easy!" from the tribe of 5 and 6 year olds. I have something more challenging for them planned.

We are going to take magnets and pick up meteorite dust that falls from the sky. The activity, which I found scanning a NASA website, is done by holding a magnet inside a baggie turned inside out and running it across the ground - specifically in areas where the gutters run off. I have done this many times and am always surpised to see how much meteorite dust we gather.

Below is a great web page with good photos (down several pages) and a worksheet on collecting meteorite dust. Try this - it is great fun.

Collecting Meteorite Dust

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Clarifying Note

The next few posts will be about work done before Swine Flu prematurely closed my school. I am going to write these post as if they had just occurred rather than state again and again, "Before the school closed the children did this work, etc. etc." So over the next week or so stop by to read posts highlighting some pretty great work.

Just thought I would make this little clarifying note.


Susan Dyer

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Yesterday was graduation rehearsal. The kindergarten children tumbled into the classroom anxious to give me hugs and to hug each other. I had tears in my eyes as they gathered around me.

Later they shared laughter, stories of their recent adventures at home and pizza.

I was so worried that this day would never happen. It did and today is Graduation. It was decided to go ahead and have the ceremony as planned - YEAH!!!

Everyone dressed up for Graduation. Below is a picture of myself and Suzy.

It wasn't long before the kindergarten children were marching up onto the stage while waving the America flag.

Doesn't Meaghan, the young scientist, look so happy?

I am so grateful that I got the chance to say goodbye to most of my students. I had hoped to see my younger students at the all school picnic, but it was canceled due to rain. Wonderfully though, many stopped by the school after the ceremony to say farewell.

I has been an honor to be these children's teacher. They have taught me so much.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Swine Flu

It has been a very sad few days. I haven't written a post in a while as I have been so busy with end of the year projects and such. But with a week of school to go, with unfinished sewing projects on table tops, the head of my school closed our school for the remainder of the year. Two students had swine flu-like symptoms.

Just after lunch last Thursday, the head of my school received a phone call from a parent informing him that her children had swine flu like symptons and she was greatly concerned. Within an hour of that call, he informed the teachers that the school was closing and that parents would soon be arriving to take their children home. I was in a state of shock. I looked over to one of the picnic tables on the playground, where all the children were kept until their parents arrived, and saw that it was now covered with slippers, work folders, spare clothes and so much more.

We were than told that graduation ceremonies might be postponed for at least a week. Just as we were digesting this news, parents began arriving. Some of the parents were crying, all looked worried. Others gave hugs and said goodbyes to teachers that they may never see again.

The older children asked why they were going home early more times than I can say. When they were told that school was closing and that this was literally their last day, last few minutes of school, accept for graduation, they protested and then left with their parents while still asking "Why?"

I am not returning to my school next year. I stood there and felt an enormous sense of loss. It may not make sense to say this but I felt, for a few moments, homeless.