Reflections on Homeschooling
We’ll Drive Each Other Crazy! How to Stay in a House
by Paula Lillard Preschlack
While our two children were growing up, I took them to live in a cabin in Ontario on a small island for one or two months every summer. It was “Canada time.” My husband would come on some weekends, sometimes we visited family staying nearby, and sometimes a young girl came to babysit for a few hours. But, most of the time, I was alone with the two children, from their infancies through age 12, and a dog. Very alone, and very isolated. No TV, no computers, no radio, no phone, no neighbors.
People thought I was crazy to do this! And the first week or two, I could see why. The children whined. They cried. They screamed. They hit each other and had to be sent to their rooms. I whined. I cried. I screamed. I didn’t hit anybody, but I did send myself to my room! The beginnings can be tough when you are building a new routine for your family and you are in close quarters without the usual entertainment, changes of pace, other people, and movement that fills most of our normal days in modern life.
But as you settle into your home with your children right now, have faith, and stick with your vision of what it can become. Insist on a routine, even though your family - adults and children alike - may protest. Carve out quiet work time for everyone. Give everyone jobs to do in order to clean the house, to provide meals, and to make it function. This transition does not typically happen overnight, and it will take determination to get through the discomfort of adjusting.
Here are some suggestions for what to establish:
Stick to general meal times and locations for eating. Eat together for all meals if your children are young, and for at least one a day if your children are older. A light mid-morning snack and an afternoon “tea time” can be helpful for little ones. Ask each child to help prepare a meal, and to make certain meals themselves, if capable. Establish that food is only eaten in certain locations and when sitting down, no matter the ages. Setting the table and being formal about meals make them more enjoyable. You can light candles and share some things you are grateful for a few special evenings.
Children may try to interrupt working parents or pull their attention away, but they will learn not to through your consistency. Deliberately set up the scene: put on whatever outfit signals that you are now “working,” get your cup of coffee, set up your work station in the same place every day, and put out some visible signal, like an object or a written sign, so that others know you are not to be disturbed for this time.
Your children also need an area for working. Their “work” might be drawing, crafts, building with Legos, or reading. It might be practical life activities like pouring water between different sized cups and pitchers on a tray, doing a puzzle, writing a story, or writing out math problems. Three hours of relaxed quiet time, where children can make their own choices of work, get themselves a light snack, stretch their legs, and change activities, is your goal. Maintaining the routine that they have at school will help your children keep a sense of rhythm and develop their abilities to concentrate and direct themselves independently. This is your “home school.”
You may need an afternoon work time as well, to maintain your own schedule. Your children might listen to an audiobook while building with blocks during that time, play in a basement play area, or have a quiet hour alone in their bedrooms to nap and read and play quietly. Do not apologize to your children when you need to work; having a job is a blessing we want them to respect and support in your family! If you have a positive attitude about your work, your children are more likely to embrace theirs as well. You are a model they will imitate, and this is a memorable time to work together as a family unit!
In our cabin, I made a colorful chart with drawings to show that Monday, we did laundry; Tuesday, we baked and cooked meals to freeze; Wednesday, we cleaned the bathrooms; Thursday, we cleaned our bedrooms; Friday, we swept and dusted throughout the cabin; and Saturday, we cleaned the kitchen. When you break it down this way, and everyone stops to dedicate 45 minutes to the cleaning at the same time, it is manageable. (You can even put some music on, woohoo!) I got this idea from housekeeping books from the old, old days, and it really makes sense to spread it out. (Of course they had a day for ironing, but forget that!)
Getting out in the fresh air, one, two, or even three times a day, is important for all of us, and especially for growing children. No matter what the weather, aim for a walk and a play time outside. Walks are appealing because there’s a route and a destination, even if it is just a loop. Passing the same scenery each time gives young children repetition that soothes their need for order and orientation. Try longer walks than you may normally. For all ages, this is a healthy form of exercise, and you may be surprised how far a one- or two-year-old can walk! Try leaving the stroller behind. Make this a daily event, and, though children may wander and be tired after just ten minutes, this is a wonderful way to connect with nature. You may find that the walks become longer as the days progress.
We highly recommend reading aloud to each child daily, and perhaps adding a silent reading time after lunch for everyone. You also might read aloud at the end of every day to the whole family. Last night, I forced my two teens to listen to the first chapter of Old Yeller. They thought this was silly, so they writhed and resisted for a while. But by the end, our daughter was drifting peacefully off to sleep and our son was listening thoughtfully. You’re never too old for read-aloud time! Another ritual you might consider is an evening fire in the fireplace, if you have one, and playing a game. You might light candles by your reading area at the end of the day. You might have a prayer time, or start an afternoon tea time. Rituals bring people together and create positive predictability.
It is going to be very, very, very tempting to try that forbidden daytime “screen time” that so many of your neighbors are raving about! When you feel this pull, just think about the long-term goal of raising resilient children who can think for themselves, solve problems, and use their developed imaginations. You can also think of the short-term goal: Endure the discomfort while it lasts, and watch as your children rise to the occasion.
Think of my story of spending each summer in Canada and having to start over each time. When I endured the boredom, the monotony, and the frustration, beautiful things started to happen: the children became self-entertainers, and they became more creative and started to concentrate on activities for long periods of time. They made up activities, like collecting little stones and lining them up, looking for insects, imagining stories with dolls and animal figures, looking at books, and building things with clay. They even washed their little eating table and scrubbed the kitchen floor. It was amazing! Our children felt more at peace and noticed their surroundings more. It always happened after that first week of challenge. They found that inner equilibrium that Montessori children develop in their classrooms day after day.
The beginning of every school year is tough for Montessori teachers. They have to push through the days with the new class just as you are having to now. It can be a big adjustment for children to learn to entertain themselves, to think reflectively, to slow down, to attune to grace and courtesy, and to follow new demands. But it is worth every day of working through it. Sticking to that vision of calm cooperation is the only way to make it happen - in a classroom, and in a home!
For the first few days of “home stay” in our own house, our 15-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son slept in until noon, went missing when it was time to clean up, stared at their computer screens while claiming to do schoolwork, and stayed in their pajamas. My husband and I wandered around, worrying about bigger things, distracted and trying to sort out our own responsibilities. But Jim and I pulled things together with a family meeting to say, it’s “Canada time”! I know that from growing up as Montessori children, our teenagers have all the stamina they need inside them - it’s just a matter of finding that base again. That’s a base you’re building in your own homes, right now.
Helping Your Child Start the Homeschool Day
by Margaret Kelley
In the Montessori classroom, there is a balance of freedom and responsibility. Children who have more responsibility on a given day also have more freedom. This is not a quantifiable constant for any child! It fluctuates from day to day, week to week, and sometimes hour to hour. Similarly, the children differ from each other for a variety of reasons, both seen and unseen.
Because the Montessori approach acknowledges that choice and productive work are both important parts of children’s development, Montessori teachers are always considering how to give children as many choices as they can handle but no more, and also how much direction the children need to get engaged in work.
At home with your children, you are the adult making these determinations each day. It is not easy! The trained Directors are here to help you figure out how to guide your children, striking the balance between choices and leading them to work when they need your guidance.
When you have your weekly phone call with your child’s Director, she will point out several activities from the available documents on the website, and perhaps some more specific ideas. Equipped with these activities, you can have a meeting with your child.
“I spoke to your teacher today. She misses you! She would like to see you do some interesting work this week. Here is the work you can do this week. You may also choose to do other productive work, but let’s talk about it before you choose it to make sure it’s good homeschool work. You do not need to finish every activity every day, but it is important that the children in our home are concentrating on work every morning.”
There are some children who will not need more guidance than this. They will choose some or all of the suggestions to complete during the week and also will come up with their own productive work.
Some children will need more guidance, however. And many children will be very independent on some days but need more guidance on others. Others will be fine for part of the morning and need more guidance for the other part of the morning. This is all normal!
For these moments, you can add structure and limit their choices. You can start with the same script, but then add limitations.
“I spoke to your teacher today. She misses you! She would like to see you do some interesting work this week. Here is the work you can do this week. You may also choose to do other productive work, but let’s talk about it before you choose it to make sure it’s good homeschool work. You do not need to finish every activity, but it is important that the children in our home are concentrating on work every morning.”
Then you will add:
“Today, you can choose between these two activities first thing in the morning.” (Note: It does not matter which two activities you choose! The point here is to connect them to an activity that will engage them.)
You can give your child time to make the choice. They can sit right next to you while they are deciding, but they cannot choose to do other things. Their next activity will be to make a choice and do one of those suggestions for work. If they cannot make any choice at all, then you can choose for them.
After they make a choice and spend time with the work and clean it up and put it away, you can determine if they are ready to make a choice on their own. Perhaps now they will choose something else from the list, or they will choose to read, or they will choose another productive or engaging activity appropriate for homeschool (rake the yard, do a puzzle, bake cookies, name countries in an atlas). If they cannot, then you can help them balance their morning with gross motor, reflective, or practical life work, depending on what they chose before.
The next day, you will observe your child again. Does it seem like they can choose productive and peaceful work on their own? If they can, then let them start with their own self-direction. If they cannot, then choose two activities from the list of suggestions for them to choose between and repeat the process from the earlier day.
We do not want to take away a child’s ability to self-direct with choice. This is why we are not prescribing a weekly curriculum for children at home. If we take away their choices, then we inhibit their drive, curiosity, and developing self-regulation. They need to work on what interests them and they need to live with the consequences of their choices.
However, work, in all of its forms, is also an important part of the Montessori curriculum. And this balance between choice and work is a constant and fluctuating one throughout the day. If your child is struggling to find work, then you can guide them more directly. But if your child is choosing to work on their own, then they do not need additional structure.
Please keep asking questions and communicating your specific issues to us. We are striving to meet the individual needs of each of your special and unique families!
Building Your “Montessori Mindset” at Home
by Margaret Kelley
The fantastic strength of Montessori is how versatile it is. Yes, the prepared classroom environments and the amazing learning materials that Dr. Montessori created, presented by a trained teacher, form the ideal of the approach. However, Montessori is also a mindset, and it can be applied in many ways. There are Montessori schools in refugee camps in Africa where the teacher and children pack up the few materials that they have made from scraps and scavenged items around them, and move to new locations when they have to. There are Montessori schools in India where 60 children work in a single room, their rugs so close together that each child has to sit on top of their own rug to work with a material. There are outdoor Montessori schools, where children work on sand surfaces; there are schools in trailers, in homes, and in metal boxes.
You have many resources available just in your own house already! The mindset to cultivate in your home is that of exploring knowledge. Building this mindset as a family takes a little creativity, but it becomes so rewarding. The goals are: concentration and challenging ourselves. For instance:
- Can your family members each memorize a poem to share at dinner? (It’s poetry month!)
- The whole family can cook a theme meal from another country, make decorations for the table, play music from that country, follow a recipe that matches, and pretend to go there! (A Forest Bluff student did this for her family last week as a surprise—that’s where the idea came from!)
- See if you can learn all the capital cities of one continent in a month. Trace the continent from an atlas and put the capital cities on it!
- Can you recite all the multiples for four as you serve the food at the dinner table?
- Can you learn three types of local trees and identify them in your afternoon walk?
- How many phonograms can you spot on one page of a book?
- Can you build a house of blocks with the shape of a hexagon as your floor plan?
- Can you arrange all the books on a shelf in alphabetical order by the last name of the authors?
These kinds of ideas come from looking around us and having a learning mindset. The Directors have many, many more that they have posted for you as volumes on our website under the FBS Families tab. However, your children can come up with even more ideas on their own! You can inspire this by modelling. Start by sharing a few ideas with them, but then allow them to just “be.” If they complain of being bored, just wait it out. Every child will eventually start to entertain themselves in some way, using what is available to them in their surroundings.
Our social distancing will not last forever, but the Montessori Mindset you are fostering at home will last forever!
A Season of Growth: Hope, Resilience, and Creativity
by Regina Sokolowski
I imagine it’s a common experience that as you begin your own family, you reflect back on your own upbringing. My husband Patrick and I spend lots of time excitedly talking about the many aspects of our childhood that we are eager to share with our baby Inga: visits to our favorite places, unique family traditions, even silly songs and games. In addition to the major life change we are experiencing as a couple, the entire globe is experiencing a dramatic shift in our day-to-day lives. It is filled with fear, anxiety, uncertainty, chaos, and frustration. It is also a time that is forcing us to slow down and carefully examine our beliefs, our priorities, our patterns, and our routine. Needless to say, the last five months have been a fascinating period of contemplation. It’s wild to think of how different life was, both personally and globally, less than half a year ago. Additionally, as I have been reflecting on my own childhood, I have been thinking so much about how this period of time will shape the character of the impressionable young people at Forest Bluff School.
As I am going through this transformation into motherhood, while simultaneously recreating the classroom experience into a virtual format, there are moments I feel extremely overwhelmed. Everything feels new. Everything feels different. Everything feels uncertain. Yet, those moments are outnumbered by my feelings of hope, awe, and connection. More than ever, I am drawing strength from my beloved school community. In addition to the support of a loving husband and the smiles and laughter of my own child, I am leaning on my fellow staff members and the parent community of Forest Bluff. Yet, most of all, I am learning from and gathering hope from my students. Over the last decade of teaching, my students have transformed my life and filled it with wonder, curiosity, and joy. But there is something particularly raw and profound about the lessons they are teaching me right now.
In the Upper Elementary, in addition to the group meetings via Zoom (which appeal to the social nature of the elementary child), I am also offering individual meetings each week. These weekly meetings operate much the same way as in the classroom. This time is an opportunity for the children to share their work and weekly experiences with me. We reflect on what worked well and strategize what might be helpful in the upcoming week. Working together, we then create a list of ideas for the following week.
Earlier this week, in one of my virtual meetings with a child, I asked him how his list of ideas went. He told me matter-of-factly, “Well, I didn’t do too many of them. I took some time this week to rest.” I was astounded by his wisdom and so proud of his realization, but that is the kind of insight and self-awareness Montessori children have when they are respected and trusted to form themselves. One of the most beautiful parts of this time, is that it has literally forced us to stop, to stay put. To simply be. Yet, in our culture, it is so ingrained that we must be working and productive at all times. Thus, so many adults are fighting so hard against this call to slow down and pause. Maria Montessori teaches us that work is noble. In my classroom, I emphasize the importance of developing a strong work ethic. Our students know how to work with deep concentration and intention. Yet, what is also critical are periods of rest, times to be still and to let the brain absorb that knowledge, both academic and emotional. Practical life is as critical as mastery of mathematical content and writing fluency, because by doing work with our hands, we are allowing critical processing time for the brain and creating a feeling of peace within our entire being. We help our brains to work most efficiently, and our bodies feel renewed and energized by allowing time for stillness.
Many have said that perhaps the Coronavirus outbreak is nature’s way of telling us that collectively, as a human race, we are doing too much; we are so obsessed with being busy, and we wear it like a badge. But for what purpose? What is the ultimate goal and gain of this “culture of busy”? Right now, as our brains are processing trauma and uncertainty, a certain level of slowing down is especially critical. We need to offer our weary bodies and minds some rest. I know I am guilty of overexerting myself, and while I know that this period of remotely teaching while fully caring for a baby is a temporary one and that relief will come in the summer, my student’s comment about his own experience made me evaluate how I am approaching my daily life right now. That night, I decided to shut down my computer a bit earlier and headed to my yoga mat for some stretching and meditation. As a result, the next day was a particularly joyful and productive one.
What has been most fascinating to witness as I have observed and connected with my students is how much their needs and experiences differ. Some took their pause early on and needed to ease into the process of working at home little by little. Others found comfort and relief by diving into their work immediately, and later opted to slow down and get some rest. We know that work is grounding and calming, but also, especially in a period such as this one, that our concentration and motivation will ebb and flow. For this reason, an individualized approach has been the best way to truly honor each student and family.
I myself was in the group that immediately dove into work when our closure began. Thus, this past week seemed to be the one when I was needing my own pause. I was saddened to learn the news of so many summer cancellations and closures. The rainy weather did not do anything to help my mood. I was beginning to feel some self-pity, thinking thoughts like, “People who had babies before me didn’t have to be separated from their families in the earliest months of their children’s lives. This is not fair.” My conversation with my student helped me to realize the importance of rest, so I decided it would be a good week to slow down a bit, but I did still feel some sadness and despair.
I then had another profound weekly meeting with a student. As the student proudly held his geography explorations, angle measures, math problems, and an elaborate boat he built up to the camera, I fought back tears as I saw the pride on his face. He was absolutely beaming as he shared with me how he felt he really found his groove. As I was complimenting him for finding a schedule and structure that worked for him as he was settling into this new way of life, he said, “Oh! And I have a painting too!” He then held up a beautiful painted scene of mountains and trees set in front of a bright and colorful background. To me this was a visual sign of hope. I was so deeply moved by his positivity. In spite of these challenging and unusual circumstances, he found the strength to persevere. He not only accepted this new way of living, but found a way to thrive in it. His level of resilience helped me to realize that we all have that same strength within us. Strength does not grow when things are easy and comfortable, it grows when things are challenging and unpleasant, and we dig deep and find a way to push through.
Time and time again throughout this school closure experience I have been in awe of not only the way my students have spent their time and the kinds of things they have created, but also their positivity and enthusiasm through it all. I know that each one of them has gone through periods of boredom and frustration, but because of the Montessori foundation they have received from a young age, they knew how to transform those unpleasant feelings and experiences into something great. They have parents who listened to the school’s suggestions to help build up independence and to follow the child. These parents watched when these children were toddlers ever so slowly dressing themselves, and fought the urge to jump in to make it go faster. These parents took a few extra breaths as they watched their primary child make a sandwich in the least efficient and most messy way possible, because they knew that child was building up confidence. These parents recognized how important it was for the child to feel a sense of responsibility and ownership in the earliest decade of life, because they now have the capability to truly be in charge of their self-formation.
What are some of the fantastic projects and experiences these Upper Elementary children have created for themselves?
- A number of children have connected via FaceTime with children in the younger classrooms to read to or create stories together, or to just be a friendly face to speak to.
- A 12-year-old girl gave a report on the Federalist Era and created each of the scenes she described using legos.
- Two separate groups of children created a Scavenger Hunt as a group and then individually completed it before coming back together as a group to share their experiences.
- Another 12-year-old created and read a 22-page report comparing the Egyptians and Incas and even built an Incan pyramid using cardboard.
- A 9-year-old boy wrote an entire script for a skit and then recruited family members to perform it. He is also using this as a time to be sure he knows every single country and capital in the world.
- Another 9-year-old boy measured the entire square footage of the first floor of his home using a laser beam measuring tool, and then his mother taught him how to use Excel to chart his data as a pie graph
- Two 9-year-old boys sent letters to a local ER doctor to thank her for her work for our community. A 10-year-old girl wrote a letter to her mailman and even got a reply!
- A 10-year-old boy created a Finger Chart (equations practice) for his sisters in Primary.
- A 10-year-old girl wrote an essay comparing and contrasting the Bubonic Plague to Covid-19. She also created a travel brochure to Diagon Alley from Harry Potter.
- For our famous person presentations with second years, a boy dressed up as Andy Warhol and gave an absolutely hilarious presentation. He is currently working on writing a portion of the book “Hatchet” from the perspective of a squirrel who happened to be observing the whole story.
- An 11-year-old girl is in the midst of working on an elaborate family tree.
- A 9-year old boy organized a lego contest for his family, which then inspired his friend to organize one for his family, as well!
- One boy knew of a way to make a paper hat and used that design to then make it into a face mask. He even recorded a video so that he could share it with me! He and his brother also created their own football team. They created their own logo and jerseys; they also took pictures of themselves doing “action shots” and then made those pictures into football cards!
- Another boy created an elaborate boat using cardstock, aluminum foil, and saran wrap. He inspired a girl in our class to create a boat as well that they have both been testing in nearby creeks and ravines.
- One boy presented a report to his classmates comparing Greek and Roman architecture, complete with detailed drawings of the various styles on graph paper.
- Another older boy in the class has been carefully listening to the podcast “Philosophize This” and taking notes that he is then turning into a philosophy research paper. His family is also using this opportunity to connect frequently with their grandparents in Finland to practice their Finnish.
- One boy built a model airplane using a kit. Another designed a submarine that he tested in his bathtub and has plans to now try out outdoors.
- Two brothers have been sorting through all of the books in their home, organizing them and thinking of which books they can swap with friends.
- A 9-year-old boy was very interested in what was happening in the economy since the Covid-19 outbreak and charted the stock market over the last 3 months to see the effect of the timing of the virus on the market.
When this school closure began, I found myself feeling so sad for my students, and of course I still do. 9-12 year-olds are social beings who thrive off of time with their friends. I know that they miss one another dearly. I miss them too, far more than words can say. Yet, when this all began I knew that this was an opportunity for them to rise to the occasion. Now, five weeks into this remote learning experience, I have observed how they have seized this opportunity to come up with creative ideas, to gracefully adapt to their new learning environments, and to approach a challenging situation with positivity and hope. As I think back to my own childhood and early adolescence, I know it was those moments that were most challenging, uncomfortable, and painful that built up my strength and confidence the most. While I am deeply desiring for this time of physical distancing to come to an end as quickly as possible, and dreaming of the day my classroom will be filled with the chatter, laughter, and connection of eager students once again, I am also so grateful for the growth and transformation these inspiring young people and their families are currently undergoing. Whenever we as adults need some joy and hope, I encourage you to simply take pause and to truly observe the example being set by your own children.
As I look at my own daughter who will begin attending Forest Bluff about a year from now, I am overjoyed that it is this particular community of resilient young people that she will look up to for guidance, strength, and compassion.
By Debbie Secler, in collaboration with Kaiti Anderson and Melanie McEneely
As we seek calm, engagement, and reassurance during this unusual historical time, some common themes are developing during conversations with families.
A goal is to have your child, or children, busy in a calm manner for a period of time each day. The concept of mixed-age groups, as in the classroom, is naturally apparent in families with siblings. Older children interested in age-appropriate topics provide new and inspiring information and motivation for younger siblings, resulting in parallel activities, which is a necessity as parents have home and work responsibilities that require their attention. Older siblings may enjoy applying their own developed self-help skills by helping a younger sibling practice his self-help skills, such as assisting in getting dressed. Spending more time at home together will definitely help siblings notice and appreciate each other's strengths and abilities.
It is not necessary to reinvent what is already readily available. Use the books, board games, and materials that you already have. We do not expect families to completely replicate their children's prepared school environments. Keep in mind that an engaging learning environment will support, stretch, and expand each child's inherent imaginative and creative minds. Each and every home environment will evolve differently, just as each and every child within each and every family is different and unique in their own ways.
As a child accomplishes a skill or as interest wanes in the upcoming weeks, think of a next step to entice interest, focus, and engagement. Not only are children finding ways to draw upon their foundational skills, but parents also are rediscovering and building upon forgotten or unused abilities and skills. What children are focused on sometimes matters less than the focus itself, because engagement and concentration will be the result. As time goes on, executive functioning skills and independence will surprisingly appear!
When thinking about expanding your horizons, you and your family will discover that the world is full of things to explore and experience. What seems mundane in your house, such as different kinds of screws and nails, as well as tools used for different projects, becomes a topic of interest.
This is certainly a time to draw upon and practice patience. Approaching each day with a fresh outlook and intending to accomplish at least one small goal will prove that all of the small accomplishments eventually add together step by step and day by day. Spreading out new ideas will extend novelty and interest. Suggesting and implementing new ideas at appropriate and necessary times when a child seems to need re-engagement supports practice and repetition leading to mastery of new information and concepts.
Support from family and friends as well as, dare I say, the internet, provide ideas during this unusual period of time. Consistent support and resources are continually provided in many ways through conversations with the Forest Bluff School administration and directors, as well as through the wealth of information provided on the Forest Bluff School website.
A little over one hundred years ago, Maria Montessori referred to her first prepared environments for children aged three to six as a grand experiment. As we all continue to collaborate, work, and support each other together to help our precious children in a situation where we all have limited choices and where we are all stretched beyond our comfort zones, I personally feel inspired by my deepening religious faith, by my family, by my friends, by Maria Montessori's legacy, by my Forest Bluff School administration and coworkers, by Forest Bluff families, and most especially by the children entrusted to my care that I deeply miss each and every day! Perhaps it is helpful and encouraging to keep in mind that we also are currently immersed in a daily grand experiment that causes us to use our brilliant minds to survive and thrive, resulting in stronger bonds among all of us in ways that are not yet apparent to us! We are strong and we will carry on!!!
Let Yourself Be Surprised
by Elisabeth Miles
When I used to work in traditional school settings (as an assistant in Spanish and Special Education classrooms at the public middle school near my college, and later as a teacher of English as a foreign language), the definition of a "good" day was when I delivered my lesson plan perfectly and then the students did the work exactly as I told them to, with minimal distractions or deviations. The assignment or worksheet I gave them dictated the time, effort, and knowledge required. My students were successful, then, if they conformed to my standards and did the work given to them, no more and no less. Given this very clear framework, there was not a whole lot of room for surprises.
What I have always loved about the Montessori Secondary Level is that high expectations and personal freedom are not mutually exclusive. We do have the responsibility to prepare our adolescents for the next stage of their lives, namely for high school, and we provide them with a curriculum that is challenging, thoughtful, and meaningful. But we also recognize that teenagers (and, really, all children) need to feel “buy-in”, and need to feel that they can bring their whole, true selves to their work and to their community. So, we leave room for surprises.
The balance between maintaining standards and being open to new possibilities became all the more apparent as we transitioned to “homeschooling” last week. Our academic work has translated fairly well to a home setting, and we have seen our students continue to plan their days, work independently, and seek help when they need it. It has been comforting to maintain some sense of normalcy around our school work. Nonetheless, much has changed, and while I do sometimes dwell on how I wish it were otherwise, I have forced myself to look for the unique moments, opportunities, and lessons that this particular situation presents. And what I have found has delighted, reassured, and, yes, surprised me.
One of our students has been typing letters on his vintage typewriter and mailing them to friends and family. A few girls got together over the phone and wrote a poem. Another student has been starting seeds, including lettuce, cone flowers, spinach, cucumbers, celosia chief red flame, foxglove, gourds, and butterfly weed (some of which she got from the Lake Bluff Library seed bank). Another is working diligently on a class yearbook (which will now include a section on “The COVID Classroom”). Another has been making his own fly lures for fishing. Yet another told me about a “vacation” she planned for her family dinner one night, including boarding passes, a 20-second plane ride to Mexico, and a meal of fajitas, salsa, and churros.
This is what happens when we trust in the resiliency of our students. This is what happens when we maintain a developmentally-based approach, even at a distance, and don’t impose expectations based on other ages or other schools. In a time like this, it is easy to revert to the mentality that I once had in my first years as a teacher. But if we open ourselves up to the possibility that, given the appropriate support structure, children will use this newfound time and space to do things that we never could have planned or anticipated, then we might see what it is like to let ourselves, sometimes, be pleasantly surprised.
Less is More
by Matt Robbins
During these unprecedented times, it’s easy to be anxious about the things we can’t
control. The instinct to orient ourselves to the situation by becoming more stressed
about every last detail is very real. Now that we’ve all been home for more than a week,
plans have been cancelled, the pantries are stocked, the house has been cleaned
(maybe more than once), and we are all settling in for what happens once spring break
Watching my own teenager, who is a graduate of Forest Bluff and currently a
sophomore at Like Forest High School, has given me quite a bit of solace during this
time. For her, e-learning is very much a reality, but what has been most interesting is
how little time she has needed to spend interacting with her teachers through a screen
and how self-directed she has been through the whole process. Because of the way a
regular school is structured, the students move through their days watching the clock for
their next classes, spending time in between settling down from the busy hallways,
putting away their cell-phones, chatting with their friends and a million other distractions
before any real work is established. This is not a knock at LFHS; it is a great school that
she is privileged to attend. More so, it’s a general critique of how the school day
operates at any big high school. By the time all the other incidental noise dies down,
perhaps the students are presented with only twenty minutes of actual content in a fifty-
minute period. So to watch my daughter knock out a days’ worth of rigorous college
prep school work in only half a day is eye opening. Through the help of Montessori, she
has created her own inner structure, and does not have to rely on outside influences to
accomplish her goals.
It’s good to have some structures in the home that feel natural to your family. Our
Montessori children have the added benefit that they have been allowed to structure
their own time each and every day at school. As we return after this short hiatus from
thinking directly about education the children at school or at home, we can rest assured
that Montessori children are uniquely prepared to allow their instincts to learn about the
For the parents, being calm and patient at this time is very important, especially for
younger children. It’s been a time where we’ve had to let go of some expectations about
how we think things should be. The world right now is messier and more jarring than
many of us have ever experienced, but the pace of home life has slowed considerably.
Presenting ourselves positively to our children is not easy, but having confidence in their
abilities to structure their time is a good way to give ourselves a break too.
We are a family that has always tried to follow the message from Forest Bluff about
simplicity in our home life. Understandably, because our schedules match up during the
school year, it has been a bit easier for us to convene in the home most evenings to
prepare and share a meal, read books, and generally work together to make the
household operate properly. As our children transitioned from childhood to adolescence,
we’ve seen the typical changes in modes of behavior, but because we established a
simpler interaction early on, our kids know not to expect too much from us, other than
unconditional love and support. We could not have done this without the community of
Forest Bluff School.
As a community, we can weather these life-altering conditions and perhaps come out on
the other side with stronger convictions and stronger families. We can work together
with the belief that our children are imbued with a unique set of skills to structure
themselves. The best support that we can give our children and ourselves during these
difficult times is love and trust.
A Letter From a Teacher Suddenly Turned Stay-at-Home Mother
by Melanie McEneely
These are interesting times. We need to remember what that means for ourselves and for our families. Our children are feeling all of this, too. Their world experiences are shaping who they will be as adults. This is their historical event to live through, as well--one we share with the whole world. Who will they become because of it?
With this larger question in mind, I have been intentional and flexible with our routine and our intellectual activities. Enjoying each other and these moments is more important than academics.
Forgive yourself and the routine you have pieced together at the last minute. Don't feel guilty if you can't do an hour of math, language, or STEM work with your children daily. Some of you may be able to! And that’s awesome. My children, on the other hand, run screaming the other way any time I try to be a teacher with them.
Throughout the day I try to incorporate thoughtful and intellectual moments as much as is natural for us. And if this is all my children let me do for the duration of this time at home, I know they will be fine. They will be more than fine.
My children are young (two and four), so my routine may look different from that of someone with what is considered “school-age” children. Anyone who has ever had young children knows they never do what you expect. These times are hard enough, especially with young children. Be the mom you have always been. Establish a routine that works. And if you need to bend the definition of routine until it is so simplistic as to only include the fact that you fed your children that day and gave them their space, so be it. There's beauty in simplicity.
My routine is laughingly simple because it has to be. My young children will not allow for anything else. First, we get up and I get everyone cereal. Recently, my oldest son has taken to waking up before everyone else and going down to play. I find his little play spaces when I get up in the morning--under a table in the corner or by the warmth of a heating vent. I love that he has this time to himself in the quiet of the morning to just be.
After breakfast, we do a combination of housework or crafting. I have several different kinds of clay they like to play with. We also will paint anything we can get our hands on. You may be surprised at how much more time your children will spend painting a rock or a piece of bark than a piece of paper! If my toddler loses interest first (and he usually does), I divert him by asking him to help me carry down laundry or switch out loads, giving my four-year-old a bit more time to finish up his concentration cycle. Loading or unloading the dishwasher is a hit for both children because we just moved to a new house and we never have had one before.
Everyone loves feeding the birds--both the pet birds and the ones outside. In a pinch, we go outside and “rearrange” the mulch while I inwardly cringe. But I let it go because mulch all over my driveway is not the worst thing, and everyone loves to sweep it up after.
Lunchtime comes next. We all need a tangible break between morning and afternoon to stay grounded. We have sandwiches most days, but quesadillas are always a fun treat. I aim for simple things children can help make. Their favorite thing to do at lunch is to bring a meal down to daddy who is working in his office downstairs.
The afternoons have built-in downtime. My children and I both need this! My toddler naps and I usually doze as well. My four-year-old listens to an audiobook and plays with his Playmobile or Legos. He is also kept content for while by having my mom read to him over FaceTime. She flips the screen so he can see the pictures and he is in heaven! He misses her and his other grandma, as well. Remember this is a strange time for everyone.
After my toddler wakes up, we make sure to do some large movement. We take a walk or ride bikes. If it is raining, we have a dance party or do gymnastics in the house (which is really just somersaults!). I start our nighttime routine at 3:30 or 4:00. I make a simple dinner and my toddler usually helps me cut vegetables. If there's nothing for him to do, he is often content to listen to me describe what I'm doing and the tools I'm using. We eat, clean up, bathe, read, and go to bed. That's it!
Montessori at Home
As I said before, I am keeping our intellectual activities flexible, spontaneous, and enjoyable. This is something we are living through together, and our spiritual and emotional health are my priority.
We have been exploring one letter a day. I write a few down until one strikes their fancy. We say the phonetic sound that the letter makes. Then we try to think of all the words we can that start with that sound. Throughout the day I will bring it up and we will try to think of more words. We walk around the house naming everything. You would be surprised how much invaluable vocabulary is around your own house! Socket prong, fork tine, Laundry exhaust vent, etc. This has led to in-depth conversations about all of the piping running throughout the basement.
I also have written a lot of random numbers down on a piece of paper. My older son cut them out and put them in order. We counted them individually, then we counted the tens, and then we skip-counted.
We also have been trying to use advanced vocabulary with our four-year-old, and when he asks about it we have conversations about what the words mean. We bake and name all of the measuring implements and tools.
I feel stressed every time I look at the news. I wish I were working. I am not sure what day it is, and sometimes my children drive me nuts. But I work to find the good in every moment. I laugh instead of yell. And here's my secret: I know my kids will be all right. I know that their education will not fall behind. I know that they will pick back up and be right where they need to be.
I know this because I've been a teacher long enough to see children do amazing things, and because Montessori said education is for life. We are fostering the development of people. The end result is an adult adapted to his or her time and place. That is all. Isn’t that what any education is doing? But, as Montessorians, we are given a way to do it that calls to children’s souls.
Find what delights your children and do that. As long as it's not at the end of the screen, you're doing all right. My colleagues have composed wonderful lists of suggestions. Do them all or do none of them. I certainly plan on referencing them.
Know your child will be fine. They will be more than fine. They will be amazing! Montessori developed her education through world wars. Those were trying times, and so are these. Enjoy your children, and give them space to create and work however moves them. Give them time to process what is happening. Not all learning looks like learning. And know this: They are amazing people, and amazing people move the world.
How We Homeschool
The following are a few things I am trying at home, along with some personal insight about what I am feeling and thinking during these homeschooling days:
1) Activity/work chart per child:
I put together a simple table to track the different materials I have made available to the children to work with; it mainly serves as a reference when they don’t know what to choose next. I can easily read to them some of these options for them to choose or even print a copy for them to keep.
It looks something like this:
Available for work?
Calculating an area
Building Magnets and Ruler
Angles (right, acute, obtuse) (find them around the house)
Right Angle Picture
Plates of Pythagoras
Pick a continent and memorize countries and capitals
Find major rivers, lakes and oceans in a world's map
Leaf collection and label parts
I keep one table per child. Every few days I spend about one hour reviewing the work choices and their respective materials. I may print something to add to their shelves or pull it out of the hidden pile (kept for rotating). The next morning I point out these new work choices to the kids to let them know that they are available.
I keep this list for the "work period" early in the morning since most of the other areas (like cleaning, helping with food prep, art work, music practice) are already ingrained in our daily routine.
The first version of the table was created with one or two options from the list that the teachers sent or suggested for each child during our weekly call. I also added to this list the activities the children wanted to include. I am adding more options as we can and while following the teachers' advice.
I have also already rotated some of the “materials”; for this I have dusted off old toys (not officially Montessori materials but toys that still serve the purpose of choice and independent work) plus used some printable options sent by the teachers.
I am keeping a few notes on what they choose to work on each day and details about their interests, struggles, if they request specific themes, or anything related to the way the “work period” develops. I share this with their teachers on our weekly call and they give me any needed feedback.
3) Questions for the teachers:
I keep a list of questions that I add on to as needed. This helps me remember any topic I need to discuss when I talk to the teachers.
4) Cleaning the house:
We cleaned the house together as a team for the first time ever. It was honestly fun and therapeutic. And I saw our children’s work ethic right then and there. We did not ask them to do it; we started cleaning and they naturally joined. A few things that made the process easier with children (ages 2.5, 5, and 7 years old):
- Not too many decorations or fragile items: Our house remains this way since our oldest was a toddler; it makes dusting a lot easier (for children and adults).
- We had a bunch of colorful cleaning rags: The children enjoyed choosing their own color or keeping a certain color for a certain area.
- No harsh chemicals: We clean about 90% of the house with water and vinegar, and it makes it worry-free for them to handle their own bucket with the mix as they move around the different areas they want to clean.
5) For the first time we are implementing “resting time” after lunch for everyone in the house.
My youngest still naps but my 5 and 7-year-old were used to play around the house during this time. When I shared with them that we would start doing individual room time for resting for one hour after lunch everyday it didn’t come without complaining. To make “resting time” feel more appealing:
- Their bedroom typically does not have any toys in it. Besides their furniture, they only have books. So, I allow them to fill up a box with paper and coloring utensils, plus a few toys or other activities so they can bring them to use quietly in their own room during resting time.
All that being said, this is all very new so not sure what will stick and what won’t. It's just working out fine for now. Overall, we have managed to have a peaceful rhythm with a very simple but enriching daily routine.
The children know at this point that materials and work choice will not be the same as it would be if they were in school, but the process somehow resembles the school approach to some extent: there is choice, gracefulness, independence, and cleanup as part of the homeschool work period every morning. Beyond this, I have no specific agenda on which concepts they “should” learn or explore and I honestly refuse to stress about academics. There are bigger things happening right now and bigger lessons to be learned from this.
Through my time in Forest Bluff I have learned that Montessori is broader than traditional education. I feel lucky I don’t have to stress about a one-size-fits-all scheduled curriculum and content being pushed online (the way many parents around the world are feeling right now). Montessori education is not tied down to a specific schedule or a place; it's holistic approach lets us see a learning opportunity in every environment and situation.
This time at home we can keep working on human development, the family bond can become stronger, the conversations can be longer and deeper, and we can learn that we can endure hard times if we are together and keep a hopeful approach. We can truly practice being a team and learning that we have each other and just each other to navigate these long weeks and maybe months at home. I see this as a gift, to have this window of time in our rushed stressful modern life. These are all powerful lessons to teach our children that go beyond any academics.
A Letter to my Sons Stuck in Quarantine
Hello, my two beautiful boys. What do you know of the world right now? I think you must know something, because you cry every time I leave to get groceries. We are all stuck together in this house now, so that means your peer, your only companion, and your friend is your brother.
I see you fighting with each other as you work out how to get along. I hear you arguing outside of my home office door, interfering with each other’s work, getting in each other’s way. Sometimes it drives me crazy, and I worry that the sibling rivalry is too much. But sibling rivalry has been around since the dawn of time and, thank goodness, we still have that constant in this crazy upside down world.
I can offer no words of wisdom to mediate and lessen sibling rivalry. Many great authors have offered wisdom such that I feel fully unqualified to speak on this matter directly. What I can do is reframe my thoughts. We are all going through something huge—something unprecedented. We don’t know where our minds will be each day and that’s okay. That’s normal now.
Here’s what gives me solace, my two beautiful boys: You have each other. I have seen fighting, yes, but I have also seen you to come together in astounding ways. When one of you is sent to your room, the other follows behind arguing his brother’s case. You do not allow each other to be slighted or treated unfairly. You speak up for each other, look out for each other, share toys with each other, share games with each other, and, yes, make messes and get into trouble with each other. I know there are other parents in my situation trying to work, parents trying to figure out their own feelings, parents who only see the same two little children every day!
Yes, you are fighting, but my eyes only see the love. I look for the ways you lean on each other and forge companionship with each other. My lovely boys, I am sad that you have to go through this. But know that you are luckier than most, and that the world, in its strange way, has given you a gift—the gift of a bond that you will carry the rest of your life.
You will weather many storms together. Life is wonderful, terrible, crazy, and amazing. Life is long and varied. You will carry how you support each other now into your elementary, teenage, and adult lives. There will be more storms, more gales to overcome. Stay with each other, support each other, be there for the sadness and happiness in each other’s lives. Be each other’s oldest friends and confidants. Although you have not seen your classmates, grandmothers, or friends, and although you are not able to go to parks, stores, or other houses, know that the world has come together, little guys, and so have you. Learn from it. Carry it with you. Use it to do good in the world.
I cherish this time together with you. It’s not always pretty. In fact, sometimes it’s very messy. But I won’t negate the gift you’ve been given by focusing on the arguing. I choose to look towards the ways you love each other.
The High Kings sang, “Won’t you come with me now and I will look after you always” in their song, Come With Me Now. This is our family’s spirit of togetherness.
Montessori at Home: Learning From Our Children
We wanted to share with you a little of what we have been doing with our daughters for the past few weeks. Please share this message with our primary teacher as I am sure she will be very happy to see her student living in the moment.
I think we are learning more from our three-year-old than we can teach her, as she teaches us to live in the moment and enjoy what is in front of us. She has dared us to challenge her to be independent and there have been many teachable moments for both us, as parents, and our daughter. For instance, we learned that she loves the outdoors no matter the weather outside. We realize that she learned to love the outdoors after starting in her primary classroom, as she talks about setting up compost, looking for bird nests along our afternoon walks, watering the plants, and she enjoyed cleaning up the back yard. We let her lead us in her interests and we try to add elements to further develop these interests.
She enjoys baking and cooking, so we have let her take the rein on some of her favorite foods and get creative by adding color (from beets/carrots). We recently celebrated the Tamil New Year (typically falls in April of each year) and she wanted to help make some sweet rice with jaggery, cashews, raisins, and ghee. She really enjoyed making the sweet rice (called sweet pongal) and she shared it with the rest of the family.
We have been working with her on developing her writing skills with great direction from her teacher. We do not have metal insets, but we were blessed to be able to borrow the MontiKids from the school for our baby. We are using their puzzle with the two circles, square, and triangle for our three-year-old to learn to trace and make patterns. It was wonderful to see her using the shapes in different ways to make different patterns.
There is a silver lining through this time: We get to witness firsthand the development of our children in ways we could not have imagined. It is absolutely beautiful.
A Month of Homeschooling: Hardship, Learning, and Rewards
If I had to summarize what these last few weeks of homeschooling have been like, I would say there have been three major themes: the hardship, the learning and the rewards.
Before sharing the upside of this process I want to be completely honest and say that it has been hard. It takes a lot physically, mentally, and emotionally to homeschool your own children, even if the expectation is not high and you approach it with zero pressure.
Thinking, planning, and arranging the environment is a lot of work. The mental energy that goes into thinking about what works for each child is significant. Then this is added to the emotional factor and how your relationship with your child shapes the homeschooling approach. It is a lot
In these past few weeks, I have had ups and downs. It’s been far from perfect, and most of the time I am not sure if what I am doing is “right” within the context of a Montessori homeschool approach. We’ve had days when great academic work happens, and days when school was pretend play and watercolor painting.
All that being said, I am trying and learning, and I am not alone. Not only is the school supporting me and coaching me every step of the way, but also this is the reality for half the world today, and we are all doing the best we can. There is no right or wrong in this scenario. There is trial and error. And trial and error again. That thought always takes the pressure off and brings clarity.
It's been four weeks since we started homeschooling, and we already know that this time is one that we will forever remember. It will shape us for life. Not only for everything that’s happening outside the house, but, more importantly, for what is happening at home.
It has been a learning process and an invaluable growth opportunity. I appreciate the opportunity to deepen my understanding of the Montessori principles and how to further implement them into our life, but I am also learning so much about my children! What motivates them, what frustrates them, and how they learn. I am blown away at their capabilities and potential and I am learning that the more I let them try (and mess up), the more natural it becomes for me as a parent to approach everything that way.
Regardless of the success (or lack thereof) in our homeschooling time, I love what this process is doing for us. It has deepened our bond as a family. I feel my children are less defiant and are genuinely grateful for the effort that we as parents are putting into keeping up with life in spite of the challenges.
It also brought me confidence as a mother because it helped me see that we can do things together that I thought we couldn’t. And it showed me that the excitement that I feel for the little and big aspects of life is my best “teaching tool” as it is the spark that will light up their inner fire more than anything else.
Beginning Homeschooling: Enthusiasm & Gratitude
I started this Montessori Homeschooling process with very few expectations. I knew right away that I wanted to prioritize our mental and emotional health during these next few months and that anything I would embark on would not compromise it.
With that in mind, my game plan was to keep it simple. Without having the routine and details figured out yet, I knew that reading, outdoors, and lots of un-scheduled time for the children to play and connect as a family would put the children in the right place to go back to school whenever it is time. I never stressed about them falling behind in academics because I don’t believe a few weeks or even months make a difference when you are invested in a long-term learning approach like we are at Forest Bluff.
Once I started seeing all the blog posts and emails from school I got motivation to revise some of the spaces at home to make it even more accessible for the children to be independent in the daily dynamic. We took two full weeks off to have a spring break with minimal structure, and I took advantage of this time to decide where I wanted to put everything.
I invested two days into setting up the main environment. I mainly adjusted the kitchen and their playroom. I emptied lower cabinets and designated them for my 2-year old-materials. The middle cabinets are for my 5- and 7-year-old materials (high enough to be away from the 2-year-old and low enough to be accessible for the older children).
I re-organized materials that we already had (such as puzzles, coloring books, play-doh cutters, books, color-by-number books, etc) and put some of it in the shelves I emptied and some in a hidden stash for rotation. I ordered a few things like book stands, binoculars, laminated maps, and lined paper--things the children could use and benefit from anyway in the long run.
We also moved a couch out of their playroom to have the space to add small tables. We put three tables with chairs so everyone would have space to work individually (we used small tables we bought from Costco or Ikea throughout the years). We also added one “floor table” (that’s what the kids call it) to use if they want to. I removed some of toys from their toy box and kept only the building toys (magnets, Legos, and other blocks).
Once the environment was finished, we spent the entire Sunday night dinner talking about why we are now homeschooling and what the schedule will look like starting tomorrow (Monday). We wrote the schedule on a board all together that we then hung up in the playroom for everyone to see. We also spent some time going through their shelves and the materials and options they could choose from. Some things they knew how to use, some things I would show them tomorrow morning. They couldn’t wait for Monday morning!
I believe that setting up the environment before starting Homeschool and talking about the routine and expectations ahead made a difference for the children to want to start work in the morning. They saw all the work and effort put out there for them and they wanted to explore it.
When the morning came they started talking about “going to homeschool” from the moment they woke up. After breakfast and changing clothes they wanted to shake my hand to greet me to start school time, so we did that and we’ve been doing it every day to start the work period.
They choose work and a table and the room is silent for a while. Voice tone is never loud, and the house feels zen during mornings now. Since Monday it has been building up, and they are more engaged every day. We are finding the rhythm that works for us, which this week has been something like this:
8:30 to 10:00 they work on things they choose, from maps, math facts, research, or join the little brother for gluing or play-doh for a while. All three of them have been choosing things from all different “academic areas.” I have not had to tell them what to do a single time. They don't work 100% independently, but they don't need me all the time either. They come to me with specific questions, but for the most part they do it themselves. They definitely choose by themselves.
Between 10:00 and 10:30 they start moving a bit more and the energy in the house picks up. Now is a good time to choose a job from the "house jobs chart" and we all work together (me included) to make the house tidier and cleaner. We review the jobs chart on Sundays and they choose which jobs they want to work on that week. As days go by they sometimes swap jobs or team up and help each other. They figure this out on their own and I don’t force them to do it. It’s a choice, and they have always wanted to execute at least one job from the list. But if they don’t I don’t stress, I just pick up the slack and do it myself and maybe the next day they will want to do it.
Around 11:00 they want to go outside and they can go bird-watching, leaf-collecting or simply play in the swings or sandbox.
At noon they come back in so we can all work together preparing lunch, cooking, cutting, setting the table, everyone finds something to do in the process.
I know this is not Forest Bluff School, and we definitely miss that place so much. But I am happy that certain elements of it are present in our daily dynamic, like choice, graceful and respectful interaction, independence, and team effort. I have also noticed that the rest of the day is so much more peaceful since having this morning homeschool period, for whatever reason they seem more centered and peaceful, and they play together a lot better.
The reality outside the house is very scary and stressful right now, so I cherish having something so meaningful to do at home. It helped me put my mind to something besides the news. I also see this as a unique opportunity to witness the Montessori magic happening in front of our eyes. As a parent you only hear it from the teachers, you never actually see it. My husband and I are truly amazed and grateful to see our children in this new light.