My children were little when the “Pop Ups” appeared on NBC television on Saturday mornings, sandwiched in between cartoons. It was Dr. Gattegno’s idea that many children could be taught to read rather effortlessly by watching these randomly selected minutes of animated letters. He had observed how interested children were in commercials, perhaps even more interested than in the programs they interrupted. He had noticed that children would watch a commercial until they mastered it and then lose interest in that commercial and watch and learn another, master it, lose interest and move on to the next one, and so on. That gave him the idea that the children could direct their own learning to read by watching commercial type reading lessons. He created 18 one-minute animated reading offerings which were so clever that children saw their similarity to commercials and immediately focused their attention on them. An unknown number of children taught themselves to read in this manner.
Almost 30 years have passed since the creation of the “Pop Ups.” Probably few copies of those 18 minutes still exist, but our school is fortunate enough to still have them. We have used them to teach our 4- and 5-year-old children since our school began in 1976. We use all of Dr. Gattegno’s Words in Color materials: the charts, the primers, the worksheets, and the “Pop Ups.” We have also created our own hands-on materials for the young children. We have colored letters that are cut outs which the little children can use to write words and sentences since writing with pencils is challenging for 4 year olds. We have written many little booklets for the children to read. We have created even more gap games and transformations.
I remember early on talking to Dr. Gattegno about additional reading materials. One question was, “Couldn’t there be more booklets for them to read as they moved through the restricted signs and sounds of Words in Color?” Also I wondered what about more written work assignments for the children? Other programs have so much of this additional stuff.
His answer was that it was the work of each teacher to create whatever else she felt her children could use to enhance their learning. He always had high expectations for teachers. I appreciated that about him.
A few weeks ago I observed two four-year olds working with the little cut-out colored letters. They had formed and were reading “ta, tu, ti, te, to” and then quickly “tap, tip, top.” The chart with the colored rectangles was on the wall and beside it was the first wall chart. Other children were gathered around the wall chart and were pointing to words they could read, “up, pup, pop, pat, pit,…” and so on. It was fun to watch such young children learning to read in a game-like fashion that was void of competition or pressure to perform. I felt like in this lesson the children were safe, safe to learn with the skills they had mastered as babies learning to speak their native tongues. These mental skills of young learners Dr. Gattegno recognized as “the powers of the mind.” So here I was watching children making use of their powers of their minds – transformations, stressing and ignoring, their will, imagery, feed back, and relativity. They were already competent learners when they came to school, and now at our school they were permitted to use their competence in teaching themselves the next lessons, those of learning how to read.
At our school we continue to believe it is indeed every child’s birthright to learn how to read. We are doing all we can to bring this reality to our students. This is our commitment. So now you can visit our web site and watch our new reading video. Notice how confident the children are, how relaxed and willing to share their reading skills. Notice too how it appears they like what they are doing. What could be better than a school that knows how to teach children.
If I were to ask you who discovered America, you would probably answer Christopher Columbus in 1492. If I asked you what was learned by his discovery, you might say that the world was round instead of flat. Well, neither of those answers is correct. There were other far earlier explorers, the Vikings and even the Chinese for example, who had landed on the North American continent centuries before Columbus did. Furthermore, at the time Columbus traveled the educated world knew the world was not flat.
I find it interesting that despite our level of advancement and technology, so many Americans still do not know this history. What does that say about our educational system or our experiences with it?
As a Montessorian I consider myself a non-traditional educator. I no longer believe ideas about education which have been proven wrong even if they are still part of the mainstream body of educational thought.
For me this is easy in a way because my children are already grown and educated, so I don’t need to worry about them getting into a great college or being prepared for a wonderful working career! I’m no longer responsible for their education. But for you all, things are different. You must bear the responsibility for your child’s educational opportunities. I can imagine how challenging it is for you to opt for a non-traditional education for your children because you might wonder if this different way of educating children will give your child the same result as a traditional system. You might be further confused by the look of the classroom. In a Montessori classroom, children aren’t quietly sitting in seats listening to teachers the way we did when we were little.
But let’s look at something that has a lot of research around it to see whether we should still believe in it. Let’s look at homework. In a traditional system, homework is vital. This is because the whole curriculum is based on memory. A child must remember his lessons. The teacher and her textbooks are considered the fount of information and he or she stands in front of the class and leads the group. She flows forth with information which the child is required to learn. Because memory is not one of our best modes of learning, many children forget the lessons. Teachers know this will happen so they have several ways to reinforce the child’s memory. Repetition is one way. It helps a child remember if the teacher repeats the information several times. Thus the child is given many papers that reinforce the information; some are done at school and some are done at home. There just isn’t enough time for the child to repeat the work at school so the work overflows to the home arena. After the homework there is usually a review of the material, and finally a test is given to see what the child retained. Many times there is a grade given to represent the level of the lesson that was learned by the child. Sometimes, if the child did poorly on the test, the material is again reviewed for the child, perhaps during school or after school or even with a tutor. More frequently, however, the child accepts the test grade as an evaluation of her work and moves on to the next lesson.
Alfie Kohn, reputed author and parent, has researched homework to see whether there is an advantage for the child to have homework. The book, The Homework Myth, is available in the parent’s library at our school in case you want to read it. Here is some of what he found:
At best, most homework studies show only an association, not a causal relationship. As statisticians will tell us correlation does not prove causation. Most research cited to show that homework is academically beneficial does not prove homework is the reason behind the benefits.
Homework studies confuse grades and test scores with learning. In 1998, a study was conducted with both younger and older students, grades 2-12, using both grades and standardized test scores to measure achievement. The effect on grades of amount of homework assigned, for both younger and older students, showed no significant relationship; the effect on test scores of amount of homework assigned, for both younger and older students, demonstrated no significant relationship; the effect on grades of amount of homework done, for younger students, demonstrated a negative relationship, for older students a positive relationship; the effect on test scores of the amount of homework done, for both younger and older students, showed no significant relationship.
There is no evidence of any academic benefit from homework in elementary school.
The results of national and international exams raise further doubts about homework’s role. Fourth graders who did no homework got roughly the same score in the 2000 school year on the math exam as those who did 30 minutes a night.
I’ve had it in my mind for many years to write a book called, In Defense of Children. I have felt all my professional life that children need advocates who are knowledgeable about what kind of education is truly best for them. Homework is one example of too many educators and parents thinking the world is flat just because the horizon is. It’s time to free ourselves of wrongful thinking and to grant our children the kind of support they truly need to be all they are capable of becoming.
The studies are clear. Children who are read stories learn to read better than children who are not. When parents demonstrate that they, too, love reading to themselves, they model a love of reading to their children which children like to emulate. This seems understandable. But what I’ve been wondering about is the impact of telling stories to children.
For over 40 years I’ve been telling children the stories of Uncle Lloyd. He was my real uncle, my mother’s oldest brother. I heard these stories in the evening when I was a child. My grandmother, Lloyd’s mother, often spent the nights with us and returned to her home during the days. We slept together in my bedroom and she would scratch my back and tell me these stories of her first-born child. I loved hearing these stories and asked her to tell them to me over and over again.
When I was a child it was common for adults to tell stories. We had books but not so many as your children have in today’s time. We didn’t have lots of toys to play with, certainly no electronic games. Our fun was created by our own imaginations as we pretended a card table with a sheet over it was a cave. Without many picture books, we learned to make our own mental images as stories were told to us. We had to listen carefully to get the gist of the story; there weren’t any visual aids. Times were different as they are for all generations, different, not better not worse, just ours. The time then belonged to us and our way of life.
I’ve thought a lot about those days, how much fun it was to be with my grandmother each night as she devoted herself to me. I’ve been impressed at how I’ve held on to those stories of Uncle Lloyd that she told me. But even more than that, I’ve been dumbfounded by how children over all these years have loved hearing these stories. They ask to be told them over and over again. Now for those of you who haven’t heard these stories, let me tell you that they’re not magical or mystical stories. They aren’t the stuff of Harry Potter. They’re just little vignettes about the life of a child growing up in the early 1900s. I have a few old, old photographs which prove to the children that these people really did live but don’t show anything related to the substance of the Uncle Lloyd stories. No, the children are required to listen carefully and to do just what I did when I was little, make their own mind pictures of Uncle Lloyd’s life.
There’s something to all this that we all need to take in. Oral stories are a tradition as old as time and as valuable, too. Start your own storytelling legacy with your own children. Then when they are my age they will know their own history and be able to preserve it.
Dr. Gattegno, originator of our Words in Color reading program and noted educator, would remind parents and teachers that we adults could better understand the problems confronting our children because we had been their ages. They, on the other hand, could not relate to our point of view because they had not yet lived our age! But it seems we so quickly forget what it was like being a kid. We forget what effect our parents’ form of discipline had on us, how we thought about it, what we wished it might have been. So what we need to do is to search our own personal history, our own childhoods, and try to get in touch with ourselves as children. Then perhaps we can better parent our offspring.
When we look at the lessons we want our children to learn, among them are the practical matters of common sense living. For instance, we know that in order to be a successful member of our society, children need to learn to postpone gratification. They must learn that they can’t have what they want right now. My husband used to have an unwritten rule about this. Whenever a child asked for something NOW, the answer was always, “no.” The children learned to stage their requests in advance to maximize their chances of getting what they wanted or even needed.
Children also need to learn that they don’t get to have everything they want. Some things just won’t be theirs. This isn’t so much a desire on our parts to raise children who aren’t greedy, but it is also to teach children that things don’t bring happiness, and having more doesn’t make life better.
Another lesson is that they must learn to do things they don’t want to do. Oh, that life could be only doing what we like to do! But that’s not reality for us or our children. This is a particularly interesting one for us Montessorians because we want all of our students to like all of their work! Montessori used to talk of enticing children with intriguing lessons so that they would fall in love with their work. Sometimes this works and at other times normal boredom appears, and children find that work can’t always be exciting and interesting but that it is sometimes just something we must do. Here children have the opportunity to learn self discipline. They must learn to lead themselves in areas of obligation to the completion of tasks. Of course this becomes more important as children grow older – they get assignments and homework. But it is something that can begin to be taught at an earlier age by having chores that everyone shares at home.
A chore is something all members of the family do for the welfare of all. There is no financial reward for chores. Jobs, on the other hand, do receive financial payment. The difference between chores and jobs are that chores are things that must be done with regularity to make daily living easier for all. Some examples of these are setting the table, taking out the trash, and washing the dishes. Jobs can be things like weeding the garden, mowing the lawn, or helping an adult fix something. Jobs get advertised while chores get assigned. All of this happens at weekly family meetings.
Mom or Dad announces at the family meeting that there are some chores that need doing. A list is produced of maybe six things that need doing daily. (These do not include cleaning one’s own room, making one’s own bed, or folding one’s own laundry. Those things one does for oneself, not for the welfare of others in the family.) Children may each choose a chore or two to do. The chore will be done for one or two weeks, then the chores will be rotated to other children. The children will discover that some chores are OK and some are not as much fun to do. This is part of the lesson. Remember ,we want to begin teaching our children that we all must do some things we don’t like. Children learn this isn’t so horrible, and they even learn strategies for getting the chores done. Some children will do the chores right away while others will wait until the last minute, but chores are a part of living responsibly in a family. Other things that children like to do, like having friends over for play dates or participating in after school activities, aren’t offered until the chores are completed.
If we want our children to be successful in our culture, we must set up situations through which they can learn the lessons. We need to make these situations as much like the real world as possible. In the real world none of us get to do just what we want all day long. Obligations are part of life. Children need to get these lessons besides the ones of multiplication and spelling!
Slow down! Stop rushing, and above all, stop rushing your children! Take the word “hurry” and hide it. It’s a word children don’t understand anyhow and won’t obey even if they were to understand it. What children hear when you say “hurry” is that you’re going to leave them. They are frightened by that idea and instead of doing what you want, they may become paralyzed with anxiety or fear and many times end up actually slowing down and becoming somewhat befuddled!
So, instead of frantically calling out to your children and telling or asking them to hurry, you can plan ahead and create strategies that have better chances of working. Here is a suggestion you might try.
First, in a calm manner and at a time when you are not going anywhere, when there is no pending problem, tell your child that you have a problem and need his help in solving it. ( I am not certain how versed you are with this kind of dialogue, so I am going to give you examples of the words to say.) Say, “ Gee, I’ve got a problem and I need your help. Are you available now to hear my problem and help me problem solve?” Probably your child will say, “Sure.” But if he doesn’t, then you say, “When would be a good time for me to talk to you about my problem?” He says, “In about 30 minutes.” You return in 30 minutes. Then you say, “I’m feeling really upset because each morning when it’s time to go to school I find myself yelling at you to hurry so I won’t be late for work. I don’t want to yell at you, I feel terrible when I do that, but I get so nervous that I’m going to be late for work, that I just lose it and start yelling. I want to be on time for work, and I don’t want to yell at you any more. Can you think of a plan we could create that would help me get to the car in a more peaceful manner, that would still allow me to get to work on time and not yell at you in the process?”
Your child could say almost anything, so I’ll have to guess! He might say, “I sure hate it when you yell at me. I don’t want to leave the house; I just want to hide somewhere when you do that.” Or he might offer up a solution like, “Maybe you could get up earlier.” When he begins to offer a suggestion, you get out a piece of paper and start writing down any of his suggestions. Hopefully his ideas will also give you new ideas, too. Your idea list might look like this:
1. Mom gets up 15 minutes earlier to have more time.
2. Child gets own alarm clock and uses it to get himself up instead of having Mom wake him.
3. Before Mom starts yelling and goes out the door, Mom gives Child a 5-minute notice (Mom cheerfully says, ‘The car is pulling out in 5 minutes.”), then a 1 minute notice.
4. Child dresses before eating breakfast to make sure he’s ready after he eats.
5. Mom rings a bell when she’s ready to leave instead of calling (yelling) out.
6. Child gives the 5-minute warning to Mom and then the 1-minute warning to her.
7. Child packs lunch the night before.
8. Mom and Child put shoes by the door the night before.
9. Child selects clothes for school the night before and lays them out on his dresser.
… to be continued
Director/Elementary 1 Teacher