Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Renegade Lunch Lady - An Interview with Ann Cooper

Chef Ann Cooper calls herself the renegade lunch lady. She works to transform school cafeterias into culinary classrooms for students and change school districts’ policies on food spending in favor of foods that are fresh, regional, organic, seasonal and sustainable. Ann has revamped and reformed public school cafeterias in New York, California and now Boulder, Colorado, where I caught up with her recently to talk about her work.

What are the challenges of being a renegade lunch lady? Do you encounter a lot of resistance?

The challenges in Berkeley as well as Boulder are food, finance, human resources and marketing. For finance, it’s about having less than a $1.00 a day to pay for food for a child’s lunch and for facilities- what to do when there is no kitchen available. For human resources it is about how to get staff in place that knows how to cook, not just serve frozen chicken nuggets. And for marketing, how do you get the kids to eat it.

How does school lunch reform positively impact student health, behavior, motivation, and interest in learning?

Kids cannot learn if they are not well nourished. Adults and educators have known this forever, and in fact, that is how the school lunch program got started, because kids were hungry and couldn’t get through the school day without the food. Now our challenge is to feed kids good food. The obesity and diabetes crisis has exacerbated the whole thing.
Berkeley just finished a three-year study with UC Berkeley Center for Weight and Health, which will be coming out by beginning of 2010. For now, though, we know anecdotally that if kids are not well nourished they can't think, focus or behave. When you eliminate refined sugar and flour from their diet their behavior and focus improves dramatically.
Also, we now live in a country where two out of four meals are eaten in a car or in front of a screen. When do we socialize and sit down at a table and interact? We need to turn off the Wii, the iPhone, the computers, and the TV and actually communicate. That sense of vital growth and learning is lost if you don't have it at the table.

How can your work give students a sense of context or a frame of reference in the study of math and science?

Gardening and cooking classes give hands-on, experiential learning and it educates in all kinds of curricula. For example, when planting, how much organic compost do you need in so many yards of dirt? That’s practical math and it can easily relate in similar ways to science and other studies.

How do kids respond when allowed to grow or prepare their food?

Although kids are not involved in food preparation in the cafeteria, they do have cooking classes and gardening and they can eat the food they produce. Experiential learning is important. When kids get to have some power over their choices, it gives them a sense of importance and ownership over what is their food.

What does a kitchen look like in your ideal school and who is in it?

We don't have kitchens in all schools; we have centralized production kitchens. They look like real food service operations with equipment that is dedicated to cooking from scratch. The kitchens are staffed with skilled culinarians and other people that care about the preparation of food for kids.

How can parents and communities get renegade lunches for their students?

Every school district has a wellness policy starting in September of 2006. Ask to see that and then eat lunch in one of the schools to see if that policy is being followed. Get like-minded parents together to advocate for better food for our kids. Parents have tremendous power. They elect the school board members so they really can make a difference.

I think what is important is that we need to make changes. We will either pay now for quality foods or we will pay later in a health care crisis. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has said that of the children born in the year 2000 one out of three Caucasians and one out of two Black and Hispanic people will have diabetes in their lifetimes, many by the time they graduate high school. They will be the first in our country’s history to die at a younger age than their parents. With all the money we spend on the war and corporate bailouts, we only spend $8.5 million on feeding 30 million kids, which is less than a dollar per student spent on food. When we live in a country where people spend $5 on their morning coffee, it seems reasonable to spend more on quality foods for children. That really has to change.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Education Focused on Today, not Tomorrow

Daniel Bigler is my guest blogger today. Daniel's blog can be found at

I don't think ever before in our history as America have we rested so much or asked for so much from a single system. It's as if education, if only we could unravel its mysteries and at last get it right, will solve all of the problems of the future, problems whose prospects so horrify us today. We hold education high, with great expectations, and perhaps rightly so – its impact can be great, it's potential unlimited. Education can dramatically change what Tomorrow looks like. But with such promise comes a hefty burden – an encumbrance that comes in the form of the diligent many, with all their priorities to emphasize, proposals to make, suggestions to offer for education.
Alfie Kohn recently made a "simple proposal": of his own for crafting an Education that truly addresses our future as a society:
"Many school administrators, and even more people who aren’t educators but are kind enough to offer their advice about how our field can be improved, have emphasized the need for “21st-century schools” that teach “21st-century skills.” But is this really enough, particularly now that our adversaries (in other words, people who live in other countries) may be thinking along the same lines? Unfortunately, no. Beginning immediately, therefore, we must begin to implement 22nd-century education.

What does that phrase mean?  How can we possibly know what skills will be needed so far in the future?  Such challenges from skeptics – the same kind of people who ask annoying questions about other cutting-edge ideas, including “brain-based education” – are to be expected.  But if we’re confident enough to describe what education should be like throughout the 21st century – that is, what will be needed over the next 90 years or so – it’s not much of a stretch to reach a few decades beyond that."

Kohn jests, delightfully poking fun at much of the hyperbole surrounding the promise of education. But I'm afraid he's far too right in his underlying sentiment: In facing the future, I'm afraid we've become obsessed with fixes. With proposals. With plans.
There are too many – especially those wonderful civil servants making the decisions, in the upper-echelons of the American public education system who feel that it's their job to fix things and come up with all the answers. George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" initiative might have left our system wounded and our schools overwhelmed, but now the promises of a new start – a new beginning, with exactly what's needed to fix the system – are commonplace. We need more funding, more accountability, more planning. These are the solutions to fulfill the unfunded mandate of NCLB and rechristen education as the means for a golden future.
But in reality, these offer only limited hope because they still fail to address the real problem.
To discover the problem – and find the answer to it – I think we have to fundamentally reconsider the philosophy of the entire education system. What is the role of education in society and how has it changed throughout time? Why is it that our classrooms today remain fundamentally unchanged from the classrooms of the early 1900s
It's easy to forget the roots of the educational system we know today – roots that began in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was then that we saw American public education emerge as a systematic movement, predominantly out of an industrial age mindset to accommodate what were largely and exclusively economic purposes. At the time there was a fairly linear, predictable path of economic progression allowing us to reasonably, though not completely judge what the future workforce would need to be like to accommodate it. And we assumed we knew how to engineer a given set of educational experiences to fill the social "deficits" of children, to get them "ready" for this unforeseen future. Education was then – as best articulated by the sociologist Émile Durkheim, whose writings were popular at the time – a way to maintain social order and cohesion, allowing society to control its own evolutionary trajectory and continually improve upon itself.
But the world has changed, and changes still. Of that simple fact there is no doubt. I could argue that the world has always been in flux, never as fully within our control as we expect, and thus education – at least in the Durkheimian sense – has always been on some deeper level inherently flawed.
Yet today, despite the radically accelerating technological and global change happening breathlessly all around us, the sheer unpredictability of the future, and an ever-flattening globalized economy with impacts we can't imagine, we remain more intent than ever on using education to fix tomorrow.
Author and teacher Ken Robinson quietly articulated this in his 2006 speech at the TED conference. "It's Education that's meant to take us into this future that we can't grasp. If you think of it, children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue ... what the world will look like in five years time and yet we're meant to be educating them for it. So the unpredictability, I think, is extraordinary."
If we know anything about the future, it's that we can't truly know it or predict it. And who are we to say that we can craft a "21st Century Education" to match this that we do not know?
 Robinson went on in his speech to make a compelling argument for the need for education to emphasize children's unique and extraordinary capacities for innovation and creativity – capacities he sees schools today as having done a remarkable job at squandering. Robinson believes, and rightly so I think, that "Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status."
Take away the expectations, the assumptions about the skill sets and knowledge children will need to be "ready" in for the future, the drive for a competitive edge in an unseen economy and we will be left simply with the children right in front of us and their natural creative capacity. Children, as we discover, are born with an insatiable spirit of inquiry and curiosity. The children in our classrooms now have an enormous ability for creative thinking, a keen willingness to make mistakes and to learn. It's only in our misguided efforts to ready kids and fill them with answers for tomorrow that they lose all these things.
What's truly ironic is that it is this creativity, this willingness to make mistakes that is at the heart of real economic innovation. We've educated it out of kids to satisfy the needs of the economy and society, but if it weren't for the outliers who escaped education's impact, we wouldn't have an economy or society today. We need to recognize this and choose to honor and respect children for their innate creative abilities by working with them to help develop these abilities. We need to let them ask questions, and spend our classroom time allowing them to explore their inquiries and think critically about every day problems and ideas they might be interested in. We need to build supportive communities around them, where children truly feel empowered to learn – where they truly feel they are valued as individuals and members of the community. We need to allow the world of the classroom to be oriented to their needs, and not some standard of the future.
Literacy and knowledge-building alone, implemented out of a desire to fill future deficits, will not prepare our children. To pay homage to John Dewey, education needs to align with the needs of each individual child – trusting in that child to serve as the system's center of gravity. Education needs to comes from those students in the classroom, rather than being systematically imposed on them from outside. We need a system oriented in the present instead of the future, an education that strengthens and upholds the creativity and curiosity children have today.
We need to pull education out of the future and put it back in the present. It's this philosophical shift, and this only, that will make the difference. A "21st Century Education" will always and continually fail, as long as it looks forward toward tomorrow. Only in meeting kids where they're at now and letting them explore the present can we help them truly develop the creative skills, love of learning, and spirit of innovation they'll need for the future.
That's my proposal for 21st Century Education.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Magic of Montessori - an Interview with Nichole Holtvluwer

Nichole Holtvluwer has a way with children. Her gift has benefitted many families at the Montessori Academy of Colorado where she is a Directress. I asked Nichole to share her thoughts on the theory and practice of the Montessori model of education.

How did you come to be a Montessori Educator? What led you down that path?

I discovered Montessori in the winter of 2001 when I was 20 years old and utterly confused as to what I should do with my life.  
One afternoon I opened up the  phone book to the “Childcare” section and called every school in Denver on the list.  The Montessori International Children’s House (TMICH) in Denver, CO happened to be the only place with positions open, and two week later I was hired on as an assistant in one of the toddler communities.  I recall my first week as torture and constant question about why I had say yes to the position.  Between toileting, lack of verbal communication and general chaos, toddlers, especially toddlers in a Montessori community, can be a challenge!  But the second week my eyes opened up to the beauty and intelligence of the young child and forever I was changed.  I was blessed with an amazing Directress who taught me all about the Montessori philosophy.  It was a true serendipitous event, and lead me to my life calling.

After TMICH closed down due to financial problems I decided to return to college to pursue my early childhood education, attending Metro State College of Denver.  Traditional education has never felt right for me, so after one semester I left Metro State and enrolled in the Association Montessori International Assistants to Infancy Course (Birth to Three Years) at the Montessori Institute of Denver studying under Judi Orion and Liz Hall.  Not only did I learn and embody just about everything there is to know about the human from conception to three years old, I also learned a great deal about myself and the world.  

I completed my Montessori training in 2004, and from there decided to take some time off and really get to know myself before becoming a Montessori Directress.  I did some traveling, left Denver for awhile, but always knowing that Montessori was a part of me.  Maria Montessori puts it best, saying, “It is not enough for the teacher to love the child.  She must first love and understand the universe.  She must prepare herself, and truly work at it. 

Feeling confident and ready to put my all into a community I was hired at Fiddler’s Green Montessori in Greenwood Village, CO in 2006 as the Toddler Directress.  Wanting more of a community feel at a school I left Fiddler’s Green and started work at the Montessori Academy of Colorado (MAC) in Denver, CO in 2007.   I am currently one of four Toddler Directresses at MAC, with 15 children in my community ranging in age from 16 months to 3 years old.   You will notice as you read on that I call it a “Montessori Community” rather than a “Classroom”. I feel deeply that Montessori is not only for the child, but also for all those who surround the child. Thus, a Community is what is being established. I have found my life calling through Montessori and feel blessed each day I walk into my Toddler Environment.  

While I am a “Montessorian” through and through, I also have my own take, as all educators do, on the philosophy and pull a great deal of my strength as an educator from the way I see the world and the way I see the child in the world. I feel deeply that we need to make a 180 degree turn in or educational system, and am doing all I can to facilitate that change.  As Maria Montessori said, "The child is much more spiritually elevated than is usually supposed.  He often suffers, not from too much work, but work that is unworthy of him.”

What is the history of Montessori?

Maria Montessori was truly a miraculous woman, who through her life journey developed the most comprehensive, honest and true form of education for children, especially children under the age of six years old.  

Through her observations of the child, she came to understand that it was not the adult who the child learned the majority from, but rather the environment they lived in.  The adult in the Montessori Environment is considered another material with which the child constructs himself, independently.  She came to this understanding after a great deal of education, struggle and experience. 

Maria Montessori began her medical studies of mental and nervous diseases at the University of Rome in 1883 with great difficulty.  Being a woman she was denied acceptance many times, but due to her persistence she eventually was accepted at the University where she became the first woman in Italy to receive a  Master’s Degree in medicine in 1896.  

Some of her first work was done in working with children in insane asylums.  It was there that she found that the children were starved for experience, recognizing that their minds were not useless, just unused.  

After continued studies, and her discovery of Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard and Edouard Seguin’s work with impaired children, Maria Montessori became convinced that education, not medicine, was the answer to helping children who were mentally impaired.  She believed that the human mind is made to work and know and can not help but take in information about the surrounding environment.  After seeing how well the impaired children whom she worked with learned, it lead Montessori to wonder how the same methods would work with children who were not impaired.  

Montessori decided to change her course of direction, and began to focus on working with “normal” children who were not medically defined as “impaired”.  Through her work with “normal” children, Montessori wondered how a bad mark in school could make a child clever?  She concluded from this that the teacher’s role is to help guide, enlighten and awaken.  She felt that the school is there to help, not judge.

At this time the Philanthropic Society of Rome was renovating a poor quarter of the city.  The young children of this area had no where to go during the day, so a place was set aside were the children could go.  Montessori was asked to set up an environment to help these children.  

On January 6th, 1907 the first Casa dei Bambini was started by Maria Montessori.  Montessori felt that if the children were to be happy here they must feel as though they belonged.  The children were given the opportunity and guidance to care for their environment.  Montessori had furniture made that was child-sized, along with the introduction of plants and flowers for the children to take care of.  She also introduced to the children the idea of caring for themselves through washing their hands, brushing their teeth, their hair, etc.  This gave the children a measure of independence from adults and through repetition the children were able to develop concentration and finally master the skill.  

The idea of allowing the children to choose their own work came about one day when the cabinet containing all the materials, which was always locked, was left open.  The children began to spontaneously choose their own work, without the assistance of the adult.  From this point, the materials were never locked up again, and low shelves were built so that the children had this continued opportunity of choosing work independently.  

The children began to show and convince Montessori that the child’s characteristics were different from their usual characteristics when they were given an environment that met their needs.  

A great deal of Montessori’s work came about during World War II when she and her son, Mario were put on house arrest in India because of their Italian passports.  India was ruled at the time by the British and considered Italy enemy ground.  Montessori had recently stood up to and refused Mussolini’s desire to nationalize all the Montessori schools in Italy, so no political asylum was granted for Montessori and her son to return safely to Italy.  

While in India Montessori and Mario lived on a compound/community of families where she spent most of her time observing the children of the community.  It was here that Montessori wrote the Absorbent Mind, became interested in the child under three, and also developed the elementary curriculum.  

In 1929 the Association Montessori International (AMI) was established to support Montessori’s work and ideas.  The headquarters are currently in Amsterdam, with a US branch in Rochester, NY.  

Maria Montessori ended her days in Holland after travel throughout the world to bring about a new form of education.  She strived for peace, with the goal to bring to the general public the importance of education for peace, saying that it is “the young child who possesses the possibility for the construction of a new humanity”.  In 1952, Maria Montessori passed away.  On her tombstone is written, “I beg the dear all-powerful children to unite with me for the building of peace in Man and in the World.”  

How does a Montessori classroom look and feel compared to a traditional classroom?

The main difference between a Montessori community and a traditional classroom is that in the Montessori Community the aim is to always “Follow the Child” rather than “Follow a Set Curriculum”.  One of the ways that a Montessori program does this is by breaking down each community into mixed age groups, called the Montessori Age Groups:

Nido (Italian for “nest”): 6 weeks to 16 months
Toddler: 6 months to 2.5 - 3 years
Primary:2.5 - 3 to 6 years
Lower Elementary: 6 - 9 years
Upper Elementary: 9 - 12 years
Adolescence: 12 - 15 years
High School: 15 years

Montessori programs for high school students are rare, not only in the US, but around the world.  It was Maria Montessori’s hope that a child who had grown up with the Montessori philosophy would enter a traditional high school and college with ease.  There are some high schools in the US following Maria Montessori’s philosophy. 

This mixed age range allows for each child not only to work at their own pace, but also gives the older children the opportunity to give lessons and help teach the younger children in the community.  By following the child, we are seeing each child as they are, not where we think they should be.  It is less determined by their specific age, but instead their individual growth.    

As Montessorians, we see each child as an individual and thus allow for that individual to construct herself through the prepared environment that has been set up for them by the adult.  As a Directress it is my mission to prepare an environment that is full of beautiful, natural, developmentally appropriate materials that will literally “call to the child” from the shelf to aid in their development. The children in a Montessori community are free to choose whatever they would like to work with, as well as receive lessons from a trained Directress on materials within the environment that will aid to the child’s growth of independence, and the integration of the will, movement, and intellect.  

Many people opposed to the Montessori philosophy see the child as free to do whatever they so choose.  While this is true, the children of the community also have limits to the freedom they are allowed.  With too much freedom, a child feels abandoned, and with too many limits a child feels restrained.  Montessori strives for a balance between the two: freedom AND Limits. 

Unlike a traditional classroom, children in a Montessori community do not work from individual desks, but are free to work at a table or on a rug placed on the floor. 

As I touched on earlier, the language in a Montessori community is always directed in a positive light.  For example, if the child is standing on a chair, rather than telling the child to get down a Montessorian will simply tell the child that chairs are for sitting in.  The results of working in a positive environment, one that is filled with “I Can!” changes the entire mentality of the community.  Children who develop in an environment filled with positive reinforcement in turn absorb that positivity into their daily life.    

Through her observations of children, Maria Montessori learned not only to follow the child, but also saw that preparing an environment where the child is set up to succeed resulted in a group of children who were confident, eager to learn and joyful with their surroundings. 

What are the advantages and disadvantages of having the mixed ages in a classroom over the course of three years?

One of the most difficult tasks of any Montessorian, whether it be an infant directress or an elementary directress, is observing the child and knowing what task to lead them into to aid in their development.  It can be quite difficult to pinpoint the exact task, at the exact moment for the exact child.  This is the goal of any educator, and something that only comes after years of purposeful observation.  

With a mixed age range, this task grows ever more difficult.  Especially when there is a child wanting to work with a material that is above and beyond his developmental capacity.  Maria Montessori saw this, and through her development of materials for the community, found that each set of materials could be worked with, by each age, in different ways.  While a 3 year old may find great joy and development in the shape and sound of a letter, a 6 year old will then in turn write a sentence using that letter.  And while a 2 year old may only be able to open and close a pair of scissors, the 3 year old can then cut paper using those same scissors.  So through Maria Montessori’s countless hours of observation, and development of materials, she saw that each item could be used to aid in the development of the child, at whatever age and ability level they are at.

What I personally love the most about the mixed age group in a Montessori community is the growth of the child.  The child enters the community like a foreigner, trying to find her footing, unknowing of the routine, and basically alone.  While the child typically finds refuge in the adult at first, it is the older children who pave the way from the new, young child. 

 I’ll never forget a little boy, Charlie, who started in my community at 18 months.  Charlie had never been in group care, and was totally freaked out by the experience at first.  Charlie bonded with me at first, and came to me for comfort when he was feeling overwhelmed.  As he found his footing, my oldest child at the time, Nate, took Charlie in and began to show him around the community, give him lessons, showed him how to set the table for snack, etc.  At 2.5 years, Nate was guiding Charlie through the community.  Charlie looked up to Nate and would speak of him at home.  In turn, Nate took on a leadership role, sharing his knowledge of the community, which in turn was aiding to the development of his confidence.    

How do you handle the more energetic children in your classroom with dignity and yet still bring order?

The first understanding of the energetic child is discovering where all this energy is coming from and having compassion for the child who wants and needs to move in order to construct their being.

Often the energy of the child is stemming from the lack and ability of  natural movement.  Our society has designed all these contraptions to “contain” the child.  For the young child there is the crib, being swaddled, the walker, bouncy seat, high chair, etc.  The lack of movement is appearing now in a new generation of children who are babysat by a television or video games, which is a “container” of sorts.  While these containers make an adults life easy, they are a detriment to the child, who needs to move in order to learn.  A child learns best through the exploration of the environment.

The second understanding of the child who is overly energetic is learning about his diet.  Sugar and wheat products greatly heighten a child’s energy level, unknowingly to the child.  Many children are fed high levels of sugar and wheat for breakfast in the form of cereal bars, cereal, oatmeal, fruit cups, etc.  Low-sugar, gluten-free food greatly helps the child with extra, uncontrolled energy. That being said, some children are naturally energetic.  These are the children who are constantly moving, even when focused on a task.  These are the children who need hands on, gross motor activities.

In a Toddler Community the children with high energy are directed into materials that will stimulate that energy, but focus it into a developmentally appropriate activity.  So, if I have a child who is very high energy I am going to lead the child into work with mud clay where their hands are really working to create, or cloth washing, where the child has to move throughout the environment to gather water across the room many times, fill tubs with that water, and then scrub with soap on a washboard, using all of their energy to do so.  These are purposeful activities where the child can use that energy to develop concentration and focus.  Time outside to run and play freely is also a great benefit for not only the highly energetic child, but all children.    

There are times however where the highly energetic child is disturbing the other children involved in focused work.  When this happens, it is the responsibility of the adult to explain to the child, using kind, honest language that they are being unfair and disrespectful to the children working.  Adults sometime forget to simply explain to the child why their behavior is inappropriate.  Just saying to a child, “NO!” or “Find something to do” does not benefit the child.  A simple reminder to calm down, or to take a deep breath can work wonders. 

Young children are excited for life!  The worst thing an adult can do with an energetic child, or any child for that matter, is stifle that eagerness for life and experience.       

How does Montessori acknowledge different learning styles and intelligences and then work with them?

Through observation of each child a Montessorian acknowledges all the different learning styles and intelligences.  There is no blue-print on how children learn, because each child is internally creating an original, one-of-a-kind “map of existence”.   The well trained and dedicated Montessorian knows this, and thus creates individual learning plans for each child.  This is the beauty of “following the child”.  There is no one way to do it in a Montessori Community and as long as the child is being respectful, each material is designed to engage the child in his/her own personal experience.      

Through constant observation of the child, the adult begins to see developmental pathways for the child.  It is these pathways that the adult then directs the child through.  For example, a child who is eager to paint, or draw, or sculpt with clay, the adult will see this and in turn work on language and counting through this passion for art.  Or a child who is obsessed with books, the adult will then use the books to work on sharing, reading to others, discussion, etc.  Each material is designed to expand on the child’s knowledge.  A book is not just a book, it is a tool for learning so much more.  The same goes for each material in the community.

There is no one-size-fits-all model of education. What kind of students do well in a Montessori setting and what kind do better elsewhere?

It is difficult to say there is a “one-size-fits-all model” for education, when Montessori is done right, I feel passionately that is does in fact fit all children.  Because the environment is designed for the individual, specific needs are met on a daily basis.  Where in traditional education, each child is learning and required to progress at the path of the class, in the Montessori environment each child is learning at their own pace and in their own individual way.  It is rare to see a child who does not succeed and really do well in a Montessori environment.  

That being said, there are many different levels to a “Montessori Educator” and many different levels of Montessori training.  Unfortunately for those Montessorians who have gone through a comprehensive training program, there are those who get a lack-luster education as to the Montessori Method.  The Montessori Method is not trademarked, so really anyone out there can call themselves a “Montessorian”.

It is also true that some adults do not comprehend the important role they play in a child’s life.  This has nothing to do with the Montessori Method, but rather the adult who is running the community.  This is not just limited to Montessori, but to all forms of traditional and non-traditional education.  

What makes the Montessori Method work and come to life for the child is the adult who is establishing the community.  The core of Montessori will always work and benefit the child, but only if it is done with true compassion, constant observation, passion for the life of the child, humility, and the awareness of the world around.       

What is the magic of Montessori?

The magic of Montessori does not reside in the method, is resides in the child.  What Montessori does is allow for that magic to be nourished and embraced.     Maria Montessori said herself that, “Montessori is an approach to education, a system of guidance that does not proscribe, instead it permits.  Montessori permits the talent that every person possesses, whatever it happens to be, to be discovered and developed.”

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Beautiful Marriage of Open/Democratic Education and Public School Accountability - an Interview with Scott Bain of Jefferson County Open School

In the signature block of Scott Bain's email is a quote by John Dewey: "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself." This quote is very much congruent with the methods and mission of Jefferson County Open School, where Scott is the Assistant Principal. Located in Lakewood, Colorado, the school is based on the Open or Democratic model, yet is a public school. Scott has worked as an Advisor, teacher and Instructional Coach at the Open School for the past ten years. A self-proclaimed education geek and passionate advocate of open education, he recently spared some of his summer to share with me the qualities that make this school an exceptional public school.

What makes Jefferson County Open School so different from the average public school?

The most noticeable element is that no one is anonymous here. There is a sense that you are part of a community and that you are part of something bigger. In our community there is a strong sense of connection which includes students, parents and staff.

While it has become a popular phrase in conventional schooling, JCOS is truly a “student-centered” program – there is no other public school as student-centered as JCOS. While there are other programs that provide elements of a Jefferson County Open School experience, none trust and support students to guide their own education the way JCOS does. No two students have the same curricular experience here.

We also “teach to the whole child” in a real sense. The program is defined by an equal emphasis on the personal, social and intellectual growth of each student. Our Graduation Expectations require that students demonstrate progress in each of those domains.

In his book Cultural Literacy, E.D. Hirsch argues that content trumps process and those who are unfamiliar with a given set of facts would be unable to participate in our society. At JCOS, we feel that teaching students how to learn is more important than pure content or facts. We are not as concerned with filling the blank slate, rather we work to instill a passion for learning so that students are interested in and capable of finding information for themselves. Our practice embodies axiom; the literate of the 21st century will be those who can learn, unlearn and relearn.
What is the goal of education, according to JCOS?

Everything we do at JCOS is driven by the Five Goals of the school. Originally conceived by Arnie Langberg, founding principal of Mountain Open High School, the Five Goals are the criteria which we at JCOS would like our work to be evaluated. Students will be able to: 1.) rediscover the joy of learning, 2.) seek meaning in life, 3.) adapt to the world as it is, 4.) prepare for the world as it might be, and 5.) create the world as it ought to be. A detailed analysis of how our alumni have integrated the Five Goals into their lives can be reviewed in Fredrick Posner’s forthcoming book, Lives of Passion, School of Hope, scheduled for publication this September.

How do you maintain a sense of autonomy and philosophical integrity yet are still part of a large traditional school district?

In my opinion, our relationship with the Jeffco School District has improved since Wendy Wheaton became our principal. She came to us with experience in the district and quickly became a liaison and advocate for the program. There are many people within the district that value and support what we do. However, there are some at the district level who don’t really understand us.

In working with the district and the community at large there is an interesting balance which must be struck. The pure open or free model of education has evolved throughout the years at JCOS. In his book Summerhill School, A.S. Neill describes a much more laissez faire style of education. While JCOS is still influenced by some of Neill’s ideals, we have continued to change in order to maintain a viable and sustainable program in the high stakes world of accountability. As a public-based open school, I believe we have managed the changes in a way that actually gives us the best of both worlds. It is still very much student-centered learning, but we also employ student goals, Graduation Expectations, and Self-Directed Learning work to create a balanced approach to learning.

I like how you refer to your teachers as advisors and facilitators. This connotes a positive relationship that enables a balance of independence and guidance. Can you describe what classrooms look like at various levels?

At JCOS all Advisors go by their first names. Some think that calling someone by their sir name is a sign of respect, but we believe that learning is not hierarchical; rather it is a cooperative process where Advisor and student share equally. Therefore, we believe it is a sign of respect to the student that we are all learners and all equals at JCOS. There shouldn’t be that much separation between students and teacher – we want to foster tighter relationships without anonymity.

At the elementary level advising ratios are approximate 22 to 1 and at secondary level they are approximately 16 to 1. From first grade to graduation, Advisors work with students and their families in three year increments. Advisors get to know the students and their families’ well, which enables them to help students design their own curriculum. As students progress through the program there is a gradual release of responsibility from teacher to student directed learning. As students assume control of their education, it is fundamental that they have the support of an Advisor who knows the student well enough to help them design a meaningful and challenging curriculum. Most schools don’t include students in the development of curriculum; this job is usually reserved for district level administration. Empowering students in designing their own education requires a strong personal relationship with an Advisor.

Advising is also an integral part of creating a caring culture. Discipline is most often handled through meetings and positive dialogue with the Advisor. Rather than relying on detentions or punitive actions, we emphasize a trusting relationship with the Advisor. The more trust established with an advisor, the more freedom a student receives in order to achieve the goals of his or her curriculum. Trust is integral as a student’s curriculum often includes apprenticeships, internships, and domestic and international travel. If trust is eroded, freedom is diminished and must be earned again.

I know that classrooms with multi-age groupings are beneficial for a number of reasons. Can you describe the benefits?

One of the biggest benefits is the mentoring relationships that are developed between the students. The older students help teach the culture and norms of the classroom to younger students in a much more effective way than a teacher working alone can. The peer-to-peer teaching and learning is a great benefit to all students. Additionally, as Advisors get to know the students over three years, a nurturing atmosphere and an optimal learning environment is created.

How does your school honor the theory of Emotional Intelligence and multiple intelligences? For example, how would kids with different interests and talents in art, music, drama, gymnastics, history, math, etc. all thrive at your school and find their element?

At the elementary level there is choice time every day for the students to choose what they would like to do. It becomes more formalized in the Intermediate Area (4th through 6th grades) with their first self-directed learning projects, called Voyages. In Pre-Walkabout (7th through 9th grades) there are multiple Self-Directed Learning (SDL) projects and a Demonstration of Readiness, which is a transition curriculum and project that occurs during the 9th grade year. It is Open School 101 and is an orientation to the Passage process in Walkabout Program (10th through 12th grades). Walkabout, which was inspired by an Australian rite-of-passage, is the final phase of the program in which each student demonstrates readiness to function as an adult by doing six Passages, the actual transition to adulthood.

There are six focus areas to Passages: Adventure (A personally meaningful challenge or quest), Career Exploration (A broad investigation of a field of employment), Creativity (The development of a product of personal excellence), Global Awareness (Research, service learning, and education of others on an issue of global and local importance), Logical Inquiry (An investigation demonstrating an understanding of the scientific method), and Practical Skills (Development of skills for which one was formally dependant on others).

Students pick what they are interested in pursuing within these six Passages. One student who was interested in music built his own guitar, learned how to mix and record music, wrote and sang his own songs on a CD he learned to record. Another student interested in aviation got his pilot’s license through the Passages. Some students interested in drama have written, produced and acted in their own plays all as part of their Passages. Therefore, the theory of multiple intelligences and respect for one’s interests is built right into the Open School’s philosophy.

How are students’ work and progress assessed?

The Open School is a ‘non-graded’ school. Students do not track their progress using grades, nor is ‘seat time’ used to determine credit earned. Instead, students self-assess completion of each learning experience based on personal goals and Advisor criteria; feedback is given on their evaluations; these documents then go into a portfolio, which is the Open School Body of Evidence used to track progress on our Graduation Expectations rubrics. Our Graduation Expectations require that student’s demonstrate progress in the personal, social, and intellectual domains. Additionally, students complete the six Passages, twice-yearly self-reflections, coursework, participation in service projects or internships, and independent study plans.

The Passages and Self-Directed Learning Projects are truly an authentic assessment. Students must write up a narrative of their proposed course of study or Passage. In the proposal they describe what their goals are, what they want to accomplish, what they think they will learn, etc. They meet with their advisor and a community member/consultant who is generally an expert on the proposed subject matter (like a pilot for someone interested in aviation for instance) and a Triad, which is a group of their peers that are with them for 3-6 years. Once the proposal has been formalized, the student works on each Passage for anywhere from one month to three years, meeting with members of the original team along the way. At the end there is the wrap-up which is another narrative document that discusses what was originally proposed, what was learned along the way and how.

For more information on Jefferson County Open School go to:

Thursday, July 16, 2009

College in Colorado: Making Higher Education Available for All - an Interview with Dawn Taylor Owens

Dawn Taylor Owens began her tenure as Executive Director of College In Colorado for the Colorado Department of Higher Education in February of 2006. In this role, she leads a statewide initiative, including outreach, marketing and advertising, partnership cultivation and Website services, to help Colorado students pursue higher education opportunities. Taylor Owens is regularly asked to speak on both political and non-political topics throughout the state, on issues critical to education, as well as critical issues facing the West. A Wyoming native, Taylor Owens was raised in Laramie and currently resides in Denver. She is a graduate of The University of Wyoming with a degree in Broadcasting and Communications. She resides in Denver with her husband Jim, and their two boys, Harlan (5) and Taylor (2).

What is the mission of College in Colorado and how does it work?

College in Colorado was initiated to help Coloradans find a way to access higher education past the high school level without regard to grades, ability to pay, and language barriers. With the many tools and resources it provides, it assists those that wouldn’t normally have easy access to a college degree. The organization helps those who want to have post secondary education to figure out how to plan, apply for, and pay for it, including finding grants, loans or scholarships. They also help find the right college based on your needs and interests, set up coursework plans, and even find jobs.

Why is it important to help more students gain access to higher education?

We talk to students who have never before considered going to college about the importance of getting a college degree in ways that they can understand. We tell them that they will earn $1,000,000 more over their life time than without a degree. They will earn, on average $60,000 per year instead of $20,000 per year without a degree. This is very meaningful and important to them.

There are many students for which college has never been thought of as an option. There are no college graduates in their families. These students will now have not only access to a tool that will help them into college, but encouragement to consider doing so. For these students, it becomes very empowering to show them that a 2-year degree in nursing will get them $50,000 a year and a flexible schedule. It changes everything for them.

You mentioned some amendments that recently passed that make access to a requirement. Tell me about that.

One amendment that passed, the School Finance Act requires all 6th graders to have an account with that every student can use the tool and those students who have no other resources or encouragement will really benefit from it.

The other amendment mandated that all districts provide an ICAP (Individual Career and Academic Plan) to each student, and it is clear that is the only tool that meets all of the requirements in the amendment. The ICAP helps students create coursework plans for secondary and post secondary education based on their interests. It provides a clear path for students to work toward as they proceed toward their career goals. It makes school and career become purposeful and goal oriented rather than happenstance.

How many students has your organization helped?

Over 250,000 students have active accounts. This is out of a possible 414,000 students, so more than half before the mandate was even in place.

What other services does CIC offer?

We have an outreach program that trains the trainers. We educate counselors on how to use the website so that they can show students how to set up an account for themselves. This website has enabled counselors to provide resources for career path and college preparation for students who need them while at the same time being able to devote more time for critical needs, like counseling to kids in trouble. The counselors average over 400 students to 1 counselor so many students who need much more than career and college resources were not able to see an overburdened counselor. This has helped tremendously with that problem.

There is a Team College in Colorado that educates students on the choices they can make for themselves and advocates for the college route. The man who does it, Lance Carl is a former football player who had a difficult upbringing, being orphaned at an early age and the only person of color for miles around. He talks to kids about making choices and uses his story as an example. He was interested in football as a young kid and started dabbling in deviant behavior with other boys. He made the conscious decision to choose football and planned his life accordingly. His brothers chose lives of deviance and have faced lives much different than that of Lance, including incarceration.

How has “education inflation” affected your organization and those you help?

It used to be that a bachelor’s degree was exceptional, now it has become the bare minimum. President Obama has stated the goal that every person in the United States has at least 1 year of education after high school. It is necessary in this global economy to have 21st century skills to be able to compete for jobs.

I noticed that you have some really great tools on your website, including a campus matching program, a comparison of colleges and virtual tours. Another is the Counselor Center. What other tools are there?

Starting in 7th grade, a student can enter in topics of interest and a career finder will show the possible careers associated with those interests and a plan to get there. It provides course work plans and even facilitates applying online for more than 8000 colleges. There are tools for career exploration, earnings calculators, and regional and national outlooks for the jobs. There is what is called a slope calculator that helps to determine in the maximum amount of student loans you should take out based on future income to ensure that your payments aren’t too budensome. There are resources to funding college. Anything you need to plan for college and careers will be found on the website.

To see and use the tools, go to

Monday, July 13, 2009

Distracted - An Interview with Maggie Jackson on Attention

Maggie Jackson is the Boston Globe “Balancing Acts” Columnist and the author, most recently of and “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age” (Prometheus, 2008). Distracted explores our constantly hurried, multi-tasking world and its impact on our ability to pay attention, focus, cultivate human contact, and reflect. I asked Maggie to share more about her work on this book.

What inspired you to write Distracted?

I began thinking that I was going to write a book on technology so did a lot of research on that. The first high tech revolutions were during the 18th and 19th centuries. I explored the invention of the cinema, the phonograph, the railroad, and the telephone, and how we adapted to them, looking for clues on how we could better use our gadgets today. But I found that they were not separate revolutions or changes. These first technology revolutions sparked changes to time and space that we are still grappling with today. It is helpful to look far back into time to understand how our technologies are changing us. The idea of virtuality began in the time of the telegraph. The idea of a global village started with ships, cars, the railroad. It did not just come upon us a few years ago as we think of it. I had an epiphany that the issue was attention. All of these changes to time and space have affected our attention. That is how the book got started. It is an historical view of our technology and the science of our attention. Why do we multi-task? Why are we so wedded to our Blackberries? Why as a culture do we think we need to be available all of the time? The book explores these questions and their implications.

Please talk about the three pillars of attention.

Attention is fascinating and has been an enigma to scientists for hundreds of years. It is a human faculty that is not thought about much. Scientists began to discover that attention is an organ system, akin to our digestive or circulatory systems, in that parts of the brain and body work in complex alignment to perform the feat of attention. As well, attention isn’t just one thing as we would assume. There are three types of attention. One is focus, which is the spotlight of your mind. We use focus to relate to others or problem solve. A second type of attention is awareness or alerting. That’s akin to wakefulness or sensitivity to one’s surroundings. You can be focused on me but be half asleep, so these are related but separate types of attention! The third type of attention is executive attention, which is a package of higher order skills involved in judgment and decision-making, used in tasks such as writing a will, pondering an ethical problem or planning vacation.

While technology has helped make our lives easier in many ways, it also makes it more difficult. What a paradox! How is that so?

The key to understanding this paradox is abundance. We can connect with people anytime, anywhere, but the “always on” nature of this connectivity and sheer breadth of the connections makes it difficult to go deeply into the relationships. Similarly, we have so much data at our fingertips, yet do we go deeply? Are we turning information into knowledge and wisdom? To gain depth in relations or knowledge, we need time to think, to connect, and we need the discipline and effort to do so. We are humans, not machines. We cannot click or compute wisdom or intimacy.

How can we encourage more focus and stronger attention in our students?

Attention is a stepping-stone; it is how we interact with the world. As teachers know, attention is crucial at school. Our collective challenge is to create a culture that values attention and focus, not just tidbits of focus and snippets of data. Our schools and communities have to work toward the goal of creating focus and awareness in the best ways. First of all, it is important for parents, teachers, and students to put this issue on the table. Talk about the cost and benefits of multi-tasking, when and where it is useful or beneficial. Filling out college applications with 12 active windows on the screen may not be wise. It is fragmenting attention. We need to talk about this issue.

Second, we need to reconsider the value systems related to attention in our culture. In schools, the first hand raised in the classroom is considered the smart kid. It’s the impulsive thinker who’s often praised, rather than the slower, more thoughtful listener. As well, what is the marker of success in the corporate world? An executive running flat out, madly multitasking, not able to carefully listen. We need to rethink that. Public spaces like airport and doctor’s offices are noisy, screen filled spaces. We need to rethink our values in order to recapture focus and step away from an attention-deficient society.

In order to create what I call a renaissance of attention, we also need to individually nurture people’s powers of focus. We should be teaching children that attention is a skill set that takes hard work to build. We need training for attentional athletes! You don’t get to Wimbledon without practice and guidance and the same is true to become a focused, attentive individual. One Canadian researcher, Adele Diamond, helps toddlers learn to focus and listen by having them tell each other stories – with the listener holding an ear, and the storyteller holding a mouth. These props are physical reminders to pay attention. In classrooms across the country, many teachers are adopting Buddhist mindfulness practices. For instance, teachers ring a bell to prompt a moment of reflection or stillness during the day. Michael Posner, perhaps the greatest attention neuroscientist advocates that attention should be part of our pre-school curriculum.

Connection can refer not only intimacy but connectivity in terms of integration of many seemingly disparate subjects. How can closer human relations and perceiving connectivity among various subjects help students learn?

These are separate but important aspects of learning and attention. Closer human relations are absolutely core to learning, and core to being human. So much of what we are faced with today, with the speed of life, the changes around us, and role of machines in our lives, prompts us to question, what does it mean to be a human? What kind of relations do we want with each other? How can we adapt to a crowded, technological planet? Fragmented moments liked Twitter do not do justice to learning or relationships. Deep connectivity is all about paying attention to one another as part of rich educational experience. Kids are averaging six hours of exposure to non-print media a day. Half of kids six and under live in a home where the TV is on most of the time. Kids are faced with an environment that undermines their ability to pay attention.

Another skill built from attention is pattern-making, or the ability to take an inter-disciplinary perspective. Hypertext allows us to make an associational journey of learning; on the Net we hopscotch across information. And that is beneficial, but easily leads to skimming. In contrast, pattern-making or critical thinking is a deeper, more difficult process of building connections. It involves uncertainty and discomfort and will power – and is the building block of creativity and wisdom. We can’t let Internet learning – i.e. research based on what’s first up on google – substitute for this more difficult type of cognition.

Connectivity in learning also entails keeping a big-picture perspective. Walter Ong once wrote, “to know something as fully as possible, we need to be close to it…and we need at the same time to be distanced from it, to have it ‘in perspective’ an object notably distinct from ourselves.” What I think he is trying to say with this quote is that there is an overarching meta-cognitive aspect to learning. The Intenet, Googling, Twitter, and Facebook, don’t always allow a big picture perspective.

How do conventional schools further exacerbate attention problems?

A good school today is a school that uses technology wisely. We don’t need to ban it but we do need to use it wisely. In many ways, we have gone overboard in adopting tech tools in schools. The mantra has been, ‘If it is technological and new, it must be good.’ We are lovers of the new, the fast and the efficient. We have adopted technology in our lives and schools without question, thinking we must be better for it, but we’ve learned hard lessons in doing that. We need to do better at using the technological tools wisely and having a thoughtful place for them.

Hurrying children through the day needs to be rethought. It is not uncommon to have very little time for eating. Many kids get 10 minutes for lunch in schools and sometimes clubs meet during lunch so they are not eating. This is ignoring our human need for social time to eat together, and our need for time to reflect on what we’ve learned. We need to refuel, and not with a Power Bar.

How can parents model focus, attention, and intimacy for our children?

Giving the gift of attention to kids is the most important thing you can do. Teaching attention is to role model attention. Remember that what you attend to is what you deem worthy of your attention. If you come to the school play and fiddle with your gadgets, what message are you giving your child about respect – for the performers or for other audience members? If you are at the dinner table taking phone calls, allowing a family exchange to become a Swiss cheese moment, what is the message you are conveying? If we can stop and listen and truly pay attention to our children, we’ll be teaching them to relate well to others and helping them learn to focus at the same time.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Waldorf's Approach to Teaching Math, Reading, and More - An Interview with Tracey Buchanan

Tracey Buchanan received her Waldorf Teaching Certification through Rudolf Steiner College in Sacramento, CA, where she was chosen by her class as Graduate Representative. She has been a Class Teacher since 2005, and has assisted in Waldorf classrooms and early childhood programs since 2003. Before her involvement in Waldorf Education, Tracey spent over ten years in individual and formal study of the Gaelic language speaking cultures of Scotland and North America: working, going to University, and living in the Nova Scotian Gaidhealtachd. She taught classes in Celtic Folk Life at Colorado Free University from 2001-2003, when she turned her attentions to the excitement of the Waldorf classroom. She and her husband James live in Denver with their two children: son Breandan, and daughter Peig. Tracey was kind enough to give me some of her summer time to interview on the subject of Waldorf education.

How does Waldorf teach literacy? Why this pace?

Waldorf education arrives at literacy through the imaginative pictures and highly complex vocabulary found in fairy tales, folk tales, legends, and through a profound intimacy with spoken rhyme and meter. The children become deeply familiar with the pictures and paces of the language itself to begin with, developing into an intense connection to the letters of the alphabet and the sounds they make. In Waldorf Education, the teacher herself must have a respectful relationship with speech and be conscious of the mystery of speech's evolution into writing and reading and what that signified for the evolution of mankind. This tacit understanding brings to the children a like respect for language that, in the best circumstances, is light and happy.

Once a love for speech is cultivated and other passages of physical development have been obtained, the child will demonstrate a healthy urge to unravel the reading question. This happens at a different time for each individual child, and to push them before they are ready compromises the relationship the child will have towards reading or even co-opt the social urge which is so vital in the developing 1st grader. These are a couple of the reasons why Waldorf educators will bring conscious reading very slowly in 1st grade and always in an imaginative way. The seeds for great reading skills are planted in the Waldorf Kindergarten through physical integration through play and in developing the child's listening skills.

If a love of speech has been cultivated and the child has passed the stages of physical development needed to arrive at the "quest" for reading and this does not happen, we know to observe the child to determine if there are other factors at work possibly blocking the ability to read. In a healthy Waldorf school, the Class Teacher already knows what challenges the children in his or her class are facing through in depth assessments brought by experienced support teachers before 1st grade and again during the 2nd grade year. He or she will have already incorporated remediating activities based on the class' needs into the rhythmic portion of the day, known as circle time.The teacher's eye for observation plays a major role as reading difficulties manifest mainly in the child as problems with actual physical integration. Perhaps the sense of balance (vestibular) is off on a particular child, or their sense of where they are in space (proprioceptive) is in need of further development. In some cases, retained reflexes from infancy due to lack of floor time, birth circumstances, or other factors can manifest as social or learning challenges.

Because Waldorf education is in itself therapeutic by addressing the needs mentioned above, many of the challenges presented by a child will be "worked through" in 1st grade, leaving 2nd grade open and clear for deliberate academic development. Typically, a child who has the desire to read and cannot will experience some frustration. This is a major indicator that the child needs extra support. Depending upon the school, reading support for the child in need could be referred for help anytime from 2nd -4th grade, based on the observations of the teacher.

Rarely are children referred to reading help in 1st grade, as premature reading compromises the cultivation of necessary social skills which have a window of blooming in the 1st grade. They can be referred to a support teacher to further strengthen areas upon which reading is dependent such as the vestibular and proprioceptive skills mentioned above. Reading is introduced slowly in the 1st grade so rarely is there any frustration from the child who might later need support. This allows the therapeutic nature of 1st grade circle time to fully mature the developing child and remediate any challenges which aren't severe. In other words, learning has its foundation in the inner health and development of the child. Waldorf education starts with the child, develops that inner health in 1st grade and Kindergarten so that the foundation for learning is secure, and then moves slowly towards academics observing each child at each step of the game. It's a well documented phenomenon that children who do need help in building this foundation for learning may take a couple of years to do so, after which their reading excels at exponential rates. High reading comprehension is a skill in Waldorf graduates across the board. Colleges admissions officers know this to be a fact.

In essence, Waldorf Education takes the time in the early grades to do everything possible to make sure that the child is a balanced, harmonious individual on all levels, remedial to creative. This time and care builds a robust foundation for learning that provides the child with strength throughout their lives to meet obstacles and overcome them, all the while enjoying a love of learning and creativity.

How does Waldorf teach math?

Waldorf Education's approach to mathematics begins where math begins, in the will of the child. How many of ourselves, as children, felt math to be incomprehensible, insurmountable jumble of squiggly marks on a page that signified the lackluster point in the day? Math is in essence a kinesthetic learning experience for the 1st grade child. Moving to math is essential in the early grades so that elementary mathematical concepts reside first in the nature of the will, where they eventually become part of the muscle memory of the young child much like their close counterpart music. Let's live with that image for a moment. Most people find it quite profound that music has a mathematical quality about it. But what if we take a different perspective? What if math had a musical quality about it? What if the human body could learn math much in the same way a musician trains himself to play an instrument? That is the approach Waldorf takes to math. The child, through moving to math in the early grades, develops a proficiency much like a musician memorizing his scales. All four processes are addressed early in 1st grade through fun and enlivened movement. Once a child is moving to math, he or she may begin to use manipulatives (such as beans or glass beads) to understand the relationships that the our processes represent. This is done through telling imaginative math tales where the children get to participate by solving the same word problems the main characters solve. This allows for a "living" math to develop within the children; one that freed by imagination can take on a life of its own.

But before we bring our excitement for math up to a fevered pitch, it's important to talk a bit about the numbers themselves. The numbers are the first real contact children have with universal mystery. Numbers are highly philosophical, and this nature will speak to the children in a profound way. We begin in the classroom by asking the question, "What is the largest number in the universe?" The children love to answer this question. "A googleplex!", "Infinity!", "Ten hundred million billion gazillion!" are common answers. So when the Waldorf teacher says, "The largest number in the universe is 1", the children react quite excitedly. "What!?" And after the teacher assures them that they are not the butt of a joke, the children go deeply inward to discover "why" the largest number is indeed 1.

The concepts at which they arrive are astounding. "One is the biggest because without it there isn't any 2, or 3, or even a million." "One is the biggest because everything there is is in one Universe." "One is the biggest because it can be any number it wants." All sorts of philosophical and mathematical truths become evident through just this "one" discussion. Eventually the children arrive at "I am one!", they see how their bodies are shaped like the number one, they relate themselves to the vastness of the Universe, and realize at that point that they are co-creators. Each number, 1-12, is a discussion involved in this deep intensity of imagination. We begin with Roman numerals and incorporate geometry into the discussion of each number, scribing freehand the relative polygons and stars. The children work diligently to master each of the stars, crossing the vertical midline over and over again as they practice on large sheets of paper. Eventually, a particular star will stand out as the class favorite which tells the Class Teacher an immeasurable amount about the class itself. All of this happens in 1st grade.

So from the get go, children are aware of the significance of numbers and enter very deeply into them. When they
1. have the imaginations of the numbers,
2. use their will to execute stars and polygons,
3. move their bodies through the math facts of all four processes (+ - / x) DAILY,
4. take part in music classes involving flute, voice, and lyre to illustrate the beauty of the voice of numbers, and
5. use manipulatives to work through exciting math tales and classroom conundrums...
a genuine love of math can only be enhanced by the practical approach in the mid to later grades. One can't help but think that the third grade curriculum of learning fractions through cooking and building complements the introduction of the orchestral stringed instruments at that same time. Cooking is a symphony of tastes. Architecture is an opus of space. Math is the key to participating in the music of life. It is everywhere. The sixth grader gets to experience this by working with the Fibonacci sequence and Euclidean to Platonic geometries, creating spiritual symphonies one can only hear if one has the ears to do so. Waldorf Education seeks to help them develop these capacities.

How do art and stories help to teach academic subjects?

Waldorf education holds true the idea that human beings are here to create and develop. So, I would pose this question: how do academic subjects help to teach Art and Stories? If we approach every academic subject as capable of being elevated to the level of Art, and support the students in achieving this, they will learn to be Artful in all that they do. If we approach every academic subject as being a way for them to Artfully write the Story that is their life, the children will seek to do so. But let me return to the meat of your question.

Art and story bestow meaning. They engage the child in a fashion that cannot be met with abstracted conceptualization. With art and story, academic subjects take on a life they do not posses on their own. Art and story are the "breath of life" for any academic subject, and without them the learned material dies, ceases to have meaning other than the husk of the concept itself. Waldorf Education seeks to impart a living form of learning which takes on a life of its own and is capable of leading the individual student into new ways of tackling old problems. Two quotes of Einstein come to mind here, "Imagination is more important than knowledge, " and "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking that created them." In the first quote he wasn't writing knowledge off as unimportant, he was stating that dead knowledge is useless and that imagination is needed to enliven it. In the second, which by far is the most provocative I believe, he calls to task the embedded modern belief that there is "nothing new under the sun" and that it has "all been done before". Our current castrated mode of thought is the direct by-product of an educational system which doles stones of knowledge out to its helpless pupils instead of enlivening their thinking so that it takes on new evolved dimensions to solve the puzzles and tragedies of humanity. Some individuals manage, though rebellion to this deadened paradigm, to maintain a degree of inspired thought. They are the ones who are making a difference today. Waldorf Education seeks to allow every student the opportunity to be the change they want to see in the world through actually encouraging enlivened thinking through the incorporation of story and art in each academic subject. Instead of starving the type of thinking that will make a difference, Waldorf nourishes it in each and every child.

What are the advantages of having the same teacher/students each year from 1st to 8th grade. Are there any problems you have faced with this arrangement?

This is a question that comes often to the Waldorf Teacher from parents new to the movement. Having the same teacher through eight years of schooling seems to fly in the face of our own educational experience and causes us to ask, "Why?" We then remember our worst teacher ever and think to ourselves, "My God, what if I had been stuck for eight years with that person!?" Its a legitimate question, no doubt! The answer to those tough questions can be found mainly in the testimonials of parents who have had the Waldorf experience, but I will try to answer your question from the point of view of both a Class Teacher and a Waldorf parent.

I cannot emphasise how much my training as a Waldorf teacher has prepared me to meet the challenge of a relationship based form of education. Waldorf teachers are cultivated in their training to embrace self development and hone their social skills. Those who feel that inner development and social skills are unimportant in education or who cannot move through these obstacles with an open mind fall by the wayside and find something else to do with their lives. Those that work diligently at improving their own levels of compassion, manage their anger, hone their observational skills, and cultivate a open mind usually find themselves employed at a Waldorf School. Financially healthy schools will hire teachers mostly based on personal development, the ability to teach, and interpersonal skills. That is why a healthy school make take quite a long time to hire a teacher; they develop a relationship with the candidate to see if that person has the temperament they desire to take a specific class.

There is an emphasis on ethics and morality in the life of the teacher which is approached through meditation and the arts in the teacher training. This enlivens ethical and moral consciousness beyond a dogmatic approach and actually creates a very open minded outlook and a loving capacity to stand in the shoes of another. This is what you typically find as a base line of consciousness in a certified Waldorf Class Teacher and what is emphasised in the "Foundation Studies" of the teacher training program. This is also why Waldorf Certification is so important and those who have received only public school training may find it a difficult row to hoe to be with one class for eight years.

The benefits of having a teacher who has undergone Waldorf teacher training are based in the idea that you have an individual who is committed to meeting the needs of the class, guiding it, and growing with the children. The Class Teacher works with a mantra that helps them stay exciting, inspired, and loving. It goes like this:

"Imbue yourself with the Power of Imagination. Have Courage for the Truth. Sharpen your feeling for Responsibility of Soul."

Power of Imagination, Courage for Truth, and Responsibility of Soul are lofty tenets for any one's aspirations. Concentration on such a mantra among others works wonders within the teacher, and helps them stay alert during the whole of the 8 year class cycle. This means that they remain available when conflicts arise and try to see things objectively yet compassionately. If the teacher is lucky they have considerable support through the combined expertise of other faculty members and an active, qualified mentor who advises them in a variety of situations. This support helps the teacher maintain his or her bearings and helps ensure an open minded, friendly, growth oriented relationship with parents in the class. In addition, being with the children for 8 years allows a teacher to really get to know the individuals in the class and be able to measure each child's progress against a personal best and encourage a child to grow as much as possible. The Class Teacher works closely with the family during the 8 years of instruction and is able to cultivate a genuine growth in the children in the class through long term observation and interaction with each individual.

I personally haven't found any problems with the arrangement, but there have been cases where a teacher was deemed "not right" for the class after all and encouraged to pursue other avenues of development. This can be impactful for everyone in the class and school community. Teachers themselves have life changing events where teaching must wait as they take care of ailing elderly parents or other such emergencies arise. My son lost his Class Teacher in the 2nd grade and it was really earth shattering, but we all lived and now she is one of my dearly beloved colleagues at a different school!

How do you handle the more energetic children in your classroom with dignity and yet still bring order?

The first line of support for the energetic child is the classroom rhythm. The rhythm is set by the teacher in such a way that it lends itself to the needs of the class, depending upon the overall energy level. There are moments where the class is breathing in (taking things in a deeply concentrated way) and there are moments where the class is breathing out (art, active imagining, movement). Story is the only time when both breathing in and breathing out are combined, which makes it the crown jewel of the Waldorf Main Lesson. The energetic child soon learns that there will, indeed, be a time where movement is encouraged and that it won't be long in coming. This develops two things: 1. the will to sit as well as one can through the sitting parts and 2. trust that their need for movement will be met. Depending upon the preponderance of energy in the class, the teacher will alter the rhythm so that the children get ample opportunity to both move out with body and imagination and to go inward in thought and feeling.

In the earlier grades, Class Teachers will also form the class culture through songs, verses and cues that let the children know they have some time (by the end of the verse or song) to collect themselves into the right configuration for an upcoming activity. In addition, great emphasis is placed in engaging the children when they are seated so that the lesson becomes all absorbing. All of these supports will help the energetic child as well as the low energy student come into oneness with the class. If there are children in the class who have issues that cause them to move an inordinate amount, beyond what is addressed by the rhythm of the classroom itself (especially vestibular, proprioceptive, or impulse control issues) the teacher will suggest support lessons for the child to help her or him integrate her or his body so that the child can know where they are in space without constant stimulation. In the meantime, the teacher and the child will work towards some sort of positive reinforcement for surmounting the "staying seated during seated times" situation. What that is depends a great deal upon the individual, the class, and the Class Teacher.

The Waldorf teacher knows, through careful observation, regular assessment, and collegial input which children have an energetic personality and should muster their will forces to stay seated during seated times and which others have genuine issues that actually make it very uncomfortable for them to remain seated. For the latter, the classroom support may consist of sitting on a particular type of balance cushion or even a one legged stool. That way they are working on remediating the issue as well as remaining seated during the appropriate times. Some Class Teachers have such a preponderance of needs in the class that they opt to have the entire class sit on one-legged stools. It helps the ones that need it and doesn't hurt the ones who don't. The rest is left in the hands of the Class Teacher to follow through with the will and the protocol it takes to have an entire class of students who sit upon chairs that crash loudly to the floor if a child unwittingly gets up without proper control of the stool! Sounds impossible, but it has been successfully done!

Do you identify different learning styles and intelligences and then work with them?

Because Waldorf is a foremost a holistic, therapeutic education we first seek to build that strong foundation of physical integration in every child. We then build upon our knowledge of each child's integrative constitution to separate "learning style" from "survival mechanism". This is vital if we as educators are to integrate for wholeness so that a child can have the ability, the freedom, to do what he or she chooses in adult life. An adult who leans on gifts while never developing their weak areas does not operate in true freedom. It is this true freedom that Waldorf Education seeks to give its graduates. But to answer your question more plainly, yes, we do.

One of the most powerful gifts a teacher can give a student is to see with that student's perspective and acknowledge said perspective in teaching. We are all individuals and as such have the need for our individuality to be seen and met. One of the ways Waldorf teachers work with this is to know, for instance, the dominances of their students. Eye, ear, brain, hand, and foot dominances can tell the teacher a lot about whether a child is primarily a gestalt learner or primarily an analytical one, or whether there will be issues related to cross dominance. When under stress, a child's dominant side for each will shut down and the non-dominant side will act in its place. If a child is right eared dominant and he is stressed out, he will need a method of calming down before he will "hear" anything that goes into the right ear, the left ear, being undominant is unsatisfactory as well. Many Waldorf teachers use beanbag exercises or Bal-a -viz-x to regain integration from a child who has become stressed and shut down his or her dominant side.

In addition, we work with four types of temperaments in the grades. Depending upon the temperament, Class Teachers can engage a child in the way that they go about learning a particular subject. Even though there are four temperaments I have yet to meet a child that was purely one to the exclusion of all others. Typically there will be a dominant one, with stress or delight reactions gravitating towards the temperaments to either side. Because Waldorf teaches to all the mainstream learning styles by way of the curriculum itself and through the breathing of the class rhythm, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners are all met in the classroom.

Waldorf education is one that builds strength in all of what is now known as the "multiple intelligences". The Class Teacher will recognize a student's gifts in one or several of the intelligences, but also strive to help them round out the ones in which they display a need to grow. In that respect it is truly a balanced education. One even wonders if Howard Gardner discovered multiple intelligences much like Columbus discovered the New World. Even though his ideas were new and quite impactful to mainstream education in 1983 with the publication of Frames of Mind , the concept of what he described as "multiple intelligences" was already in practice in Waldorf schools and had been for almost 50 years. Not to downplay the immense sociological and pedagogical mainstream impact of Dr. Gardner's work in any way, mind you. Educators are inspired and rightly so by the focused and heartfelt endeavors of this amazing man. But we should recognize that his life work supports the pre-existent Waldorf approach, though Waldorf pedagogues will not necessarily use the same terminology or go about implementing his ideas in a systematic way.

What progress have you seen in your students now that the year is coming to a close – in terms of behavior, academic achievement, confidence, artistic talent?

The first grade classroom is such an exciting place! It always begins in chaos and ends in order, provided a class culture has been formed, the rhythm has met the children, and they have learned to breathe out and in (as described above) in a healthy way. In the beginning, the first thing the children want to know, "What does it mean to be in a classroom?" and we give them rules so they know. The rest of the year is comprised with working with the precious individualities in the class to help them understand that the boundaries are the boundaries in a loving, fun, and exciting way. Time for work, time for play. Time to eat, time to rest. Time to be loud, time to be quiet. Time to be outside (different rules!) time to be inside. Maybe this friend is a good work partner, and this one is great for playtime! It is magical watching the capacities of the children develop, watching the class knit into a community. The social development of the class culture is one of the main considerations in the education. Can these wonderful individual children, guided by the Class Teacher and their parents and supported by the school itself create community? Of course they can!

All of the children are artists, each with his or her own different signature style. The Waldorf methods allow the teacher to truly witness the essence of each child's artistic nature by noticing his or her unique signature in artistic "studies" (where they all paint or draw or sculpt the content given by the teacher, displaying the inner nature of their style) as well as in "free-rendering" (they choose the medium and contextual content). The art of the children in the classroom never ceases to amaze me, and with this 1st grade it is no different. Vibrant, alive, unique, and even jaw dropping.

Artistic and musical ability along with classroom (behavioral) skills were overall the most prolific gains represented in the classroom this year with a majority of the class meeting "secure" or "prolific" goals in these areas. A majority of the children in the class are also secure to prolific in areas related to the Alphabet, Numbers 1-100, the Four Processes, and "skip counting" (counting by 2s, 3s,5s,10s,11s forwards and backwards while moving in time with the class). Most were still developing in writing, which in my book depends upon being able to write from dictation with correct letter and number orientation, and correct stroke and grip. Many children in 1st grade are still practicing how to make their letters and numbers correctly with the correct grip and stroke. I find improvements across the board in these in 2nd grade after a summer of healthy outdoor play, and expect the same with this class of 26.

Reading is not quantifiably measured until 2nd grade, but at the moment I have abilities ranging from complete disinterest to vigorous chapter book reading in the class. Most of the parents have been with Waldorf since the beginning, aren't too concerned at the close of 2nd grade and haven't been pushing their children in any way other than to read to them regularly. The range is completely based upon the readiness of the individual and there is no reading hierarchy in the class at the close of 1st. Next year we will focus even more on dictation, reading from readers we create, and further writing in our Main Lesson Books and in our nature journals.

What led you into Waldorf teaching?

My dear children, specifically my son Breandan, led me to Waldorf. I knew he was going to need a pretty special education because he was by no means an easy child. Waldorf showed me how to better support him with his particular needs with amazing results, and because of my involvement in his school I became aquainted with the methods. Encouraged by the faculty, I got my teacher training at Rudolf Steiner College in Sacramento beginning in 2005 and graduating in 2008. I cannot stress enough the positive effect becoming a Waldorf teacher has had on the life of my family and my own personal renewal. I am grateful.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Choosing the Right School for Your Child

Laura Barr is the driving force behind e.Merging, formerly Denver School Solutions. She helps parents find the best school fit for their children by identifying the values and goals of the parents, and the learning styles and interests of the child. Anyone who has considered the myriad school options for their family knows that this is a huge challenge. I recently shared coffee and questions with Laura.

How do you help families find the best school fit for their children?

I start by understanding the family values. I give a five-page questionnaire before I even meet the family. It helps them to concretely identify what is important to them and provides a point of navigation for the rest of our meetings. The questions ask the parents about their dreams for their children and about their educational experiences, among other things. Then I look at the child, asking what kind of learner is he? What are his sensitivities, his strengths, and his challenges? The best time to start this is when the child is three years old or any time after. It is easier to start early rather than late.

How did you get started doing this?

I have a Master's in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and my focus was educational philosophies. For the past 10 years I owned a Music Together Center and was always asked by parents for advice on school matters. After I sold that business I integrated all of my knowledge of being an Admissions Director, teacher and coach began coaching families and empowering them to make confident choices in parenting and education. The first year I helped over 100 families with school choices and coaching on intentional parenting.

Why is it so difficult to find a school on your own?

There is so much information, so many philosophies, and so many choices that it makes the job of a intentional parents difficult to navigate to find the best school for their child. There are charter schools, neighborhood schools, beacon schools, magnet, schools, private schools and so on. They all have a different focus and different things to offer families and students. If you look at their websites they all tend to say similar things, like “we teach to the whole child” and “we offer a rigorous academic program”, but it is really hard to figure out what exactly makes each school different if you only use the glossy marketing materials in your search. I share my knowledge of the schools in the Denver metro area to go well beyond statistics and marketing messages to make informed decisions that are in alignment with the values and goals of the family.

What criteria are used when choosing the schools?

In addition to the process I follow, there are considerations like program offerings (do they have arts or sports and are those important?), student-teacher ratio, school stability, philosophy, leadership, culture, diversity and aesthetics. Do they offer before and after school care? What about summer programs? How about financial aid or scholarships if that is necessary? Do they have gifted programs or special education that will be necessary for your child?

What is the geographic area you work in?

I work in metro Denver, Littleton, Jefferson County, and Cherry Creek, though I can help any family anywhere, visiting schools on my own time. The knowledge you gain from the process is portable in that once you identify what is important to you it is not as hard to match that with a school. I often help parents who are going to be moving in to this area and have no idea what the education choices are when determining where to move. I help them identify the best schools for them to help them not only make informed decisions about school choice, but about where to move once that is in place.

Do you help procure scholarships or reduced admissions?

I inform families about processes and timing. I walk them through the time-consuming process and make sure deadlines and requirements are met.

Do you help with college as well?

No, there are already plenty of services that exist for that kind of thing, and the choices are nation-wide, of course, involving a lot of travel and certification through colleges and universities. I discovered this niche because there wasn’t anything out there to help with elementary through high school.

Do most families come to you after a bad experience, from out of town, or before school age has come?

Most are intentional families that start early in the pre-school ages looking to make the right choices up front. About 5-10% come to me after experiencing a disastrous school experience and want to make better decisions for a better school experience. About 2% are families that are moving here and need someone experienced in this area to help them make appropriate choices about school and location.

What are other services you offer?

I offer coaching and consulting - in general I inform parents to advocate for the education of their children. I make referrals to reputable psychologists if that is necessary. I coach parents on fostering literacy for their children. I guide parents to get their thoughts, actions, words and philosophy in alignment so that their decisions come more easily with the end goal in mind.

To learn more about how an educational consultant can help you with intentional parenting or school choice, go to e.Merging’s website at