Observation is the cornerstone for connecting the students to our carefully prepared Montessori classrooms. We invite our families to observe their student prior to conferences and in preparation for transitions from one program level to the next. In addition, our parents stay connected to the classroom happenings through weekly blog entries, often viewing them with their children to encourage sharing about their days. Here are samples of typical blogs:
An Authentic Assessment
On Wednesday morning, our students participated in an exciting, authentic assessment of the lessons they have been studying about prehistoric man. Katie led them through a simulation in which small groups of students each became a tribe (with no language skills initially) and used available resources in the forest preserve to build a shelter and look for food and a heat source. The students quickly developed a rudimentary method of communication with grunts and hand gestures that allowed them to work together to begin building a structure. They demonstrated teamwork, logical thinking skills and innovation as they worked through the challenge for almost an hour. Once we returned to the classroom, the students discussed what worked well and what ideas needed to be revised. The students used the lessons they had learned about prehistoric man to talk about the trials they had just faced and make comparisons to how much more difficult it would have been for those that lived so long ago. The discussion did indeed display a strong working understanding of prehistoric man.
In our classroom, we assess students using standard written forms, such as quizzes, tests and writing samples. We also have them present group projects and share independent research orally to determine a student’s understanding of material. Often, the most insightful assessments we can provide our students, however, are ones in which we simply observe their work and interactions with one another. The way they use appropriate terminology, explain the steps of a process to a peer, and recognize the aim of the lesson. As teachers, these are the moments that truly demonstrate our students’ mastery of material, and put a smile on our faces.
The Importance of Mistakes
Just over a week ago, Charles (the middle school teacher) and I had the opportunity to go to a workshop with Jo Boaler, a mathematical educator at Stanford University. She spoke about students having a “growth mindset” with mathematics and how we can help them to feel like they are good at math. At this age, our children often feel like they are good/not good at mathematics and that they can’t change their abilities in math; something that she calls a “fixed mindset” (see Carol Dweck’s book Mindset for more information about fixed vs. growth mindsets). She challenged that notion by talking about the many ways that students have numerical sense and can feel successful in their abilities. I gained many practical skills I could apply to my teaching immediately and was given activities to help students develop their confidence in mathematics. Additionally, she spoke about the brain research that she and her colleagues have done. One fact that stuck with me the most was the idea that when you get a problem correct, nothing in your brain changes; yet when you make a mistake and correct it, your brain creates a new dendrite (or pathway). I related this information to the students on Tuesday, when we usually do math word problems together at morning meeting. I told the students that it was like getting a new “string”, or pathway, in their brains, hence increasing their understanding of the concept they were practicing. The students seemed intrigued by this idea, but it wasn’t until after our meeting that I realized how much the students really took to heart the idea. Over the course of the morning, I heard several students refer to the “string” theory about making mistakes while they worked. One student even told me that he had tried a new strategy for studying for his vocabulary test before I handed him the assessment. I asked if he thought the strategy would be effective for his test. He responded by saying “I hope so! But if it isn’t, at least I will gain a new string when I correct it!”
It is so important for our students to recognize that mistakes are a part of gaining mastery. So many of them want to be perfect immediately. As we continue to help them realize that the process is imperative to gaining mastery (in math, along with every other subject), we must celebrate their missteps and setbacks. For this will ultimately create strong, resilient life-long learners of our communities and individuals who are able to persevere with the recognition that hard work creates more and more “strings” in a well-developed brain.