We are VdM: The Macke Family

The very best part of Villa di Maria is our people. Our community of families, faculty and staff is something to be proud of. In this series, We are VdM, we’ll highlight the energies, talents, humor and wisdom of some of our amazing people. Today we’ll meet Jaime, Chris, Tommy and Oliver Macke who joined VdM in 2015. Tommy is in his third year in the Checkerboard Lower Elementary classroom and Oliver just started this year in the Young Children’s Community.

Villa di Maria: Tell us a bit about you and your family.

The Mackes: We are a family of four—Chris, Jaime, Tommy (8 years old in Checkerboard) and Oliver (2.5 years old in YCC). We live in Fox Park in St. Louis city with our two cats, Murray and Zero, and guinea pig Tootsie. I (Jaime) grew up in Wood River, IL, about 25 minutes away, and Chris grew up in the city. When we met, I started spending more time in the city and really loved it, so we decided to stay. We bought a 130 year-old house that seems to need constant attention 😊, but we love the old architecture and we have wonderful neighbors. Our extended families are also all in the St. Louis metro area and we’re all pretty close. It gets complicated during the holidays (although, this may be the quietest holiday we’ve ever had!), but we love that the boys get to grow up playing with their cousins.

VdM: How did you find Montessori and what brought you to VdM?

Jaime: We found Villa before we really knew much about Montessori 😊. Tommy was 3 and we had looked at some other preschools and mainstream-type schools but they didn’t feel like a good fit—we were looking for something different. It was also really important to us to find a place that extended all the way through elementary—we didn’t want to school-hop every few years. Villa had popped up in a few of our searches and so we decided to check it out. I still remember that our first conversation with Laura was so wonderful and then when we toured the school and saw one of the primary classes at work, it was exactly what we were looking for.

We’ve learned more about Montessori over the years through Villa’s parent talks, reading books and meeting with the guides. The best thing, though, was that we attended the Silent Journey a few years ago. It was really amazing getting to be in each of the environments and experience it for ourselves. For us, it really pulled together everything that we had learned and read and completed the picture for us to understand what Montessori is really about.

VdM: Tell us about your backgrounds, what do you and your spouse do career-wise? 

Jaime: I studied Spanish at SIUE and abroad at a university near Mexico City; I also have a Masters in English from SIUE. I work at a pharmaceutical company as a global business director, but language is still my true passion! Chris received his degree in Business at UMSL and was previously also in the corporate world, working in a global sales management position. But both of us having jobs with lots of international travel was getting to be too much for our family. So last summer, Chris exchanged his corporate job for a stay-at-home dad title, and we haven’t looked back! I have no idea how we would have gotten through this year if we hadn’t made that change. Chris’s passion is acting and movie production, so he and some local contacts formed a partnership and they’re working on producing a film.

VdM: Do you have any hobbies? How do you and your family enjoy spending your spare time?

Jaime: We travel a lot (or, we did) and it’s our favorite thing to do! We love taking the boys to new places. Our family also loves the water, so we do a lot of swimming year round. At home, we walk to parks when the weather cooperates and when it doesn’t, we do a lot of game and movie nights. Both boys have a LOT of energy, so we try to stay busy 😊.

VdM: What are you most looking forward to this school year?

Jaime: We are honestly just so happy that our boys have the opportunity to be in school. Distance learning, even with one of us being a full-time stay-at-home parent, was challenging for our family, and Tommy really loves being in his classroom, working with his peers. We’re also super excited that Oliver has been able to join Villa in the YCC. We were so excited when the program was announced and we couldn’t have been happier when we learned that he would be with Reghan and Jess every day (Tommy had a wonderful experience in their primary environment!). Oliver really loves being at Villa and has been thriving in the new environment!

VdM: A question for Tommy – What is one of your favorite memories of Villa di Maria, so far? 

Tommy: When I moved up to Lower Elementary and found out that I was in the same class as my friends!

Thank you, Jaime, Chris, Tommy and Oliver!

Photos courtesy of the Macke family, Melissa LeBeau and Carrie Tallon.

What a Great Question! Cultivating Curiosity in Montessori

Some photos in this post were taken before the COVID-19 pandemic.

I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother [for] the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity. Eleanor Roosevelt

Over the years, our guides have hosted numerous on-campus events to deepen our community’s understanding of Montessori and how we implement it here at Villa di Maria. As a parent and a staff member I’ve attended quite a few of these events and I can honestly say that each and every one has reinforced my appreciation for our guides’ and assistants’ dedication to our students.

I could write an entire post gushing about the wisdom our guides share at each of these events, but that is a topic for another day. Today I want to share something from the events that has especially resonated with me because it so simply and precisely sums up one of the most important principles of a Montessori education: the cultivation of a lifelong love of learning through the encouragement and promotion of the child’s innate curiosity. This topic comes up regularly at events, in conversations about what sets Montessori apart from traditional methods of education. And the best summary of it I’ve heard was given by Upper Elementary Guide Rebecca Callendar when she said that her favorite way to meet her students’ questions is with… What a great question!  

This response, as simple as it seems, is really quite powerful. If you’ve spent any time with children, you know that they are dedicated, persistent (sometimes relentless) question-askers. The sky, their breakfast, the neighbor’s car, the leaves on the trees, the street lights, the huge eyebrows on that man at the grocery store… nothing is spared the curiosity of children. They will ask questions about all of it. All. Of. It.

When they are very young, children are taking in everything around them—collecting endless data from their surroundings. They begin to store, categorize, quantify and sort that data, to process the world with countless repetitions of  who?, what?, when?, where? and, of course, WHY?

As they get older, their questions increase and become more complicated as they begin to use their reasoning minds and develop their imaginations—as they begin to practice abstract thought.

Asking questions is the primary method children use to learn. So when adults meet their questions with statements like What a great question!, we are sending a powerful message. Multiple powerful messages, in fact. We are teaching children that they are allowed to actively participate, and even take control, in their learning; that their curiosity, their drive to know more and more about the world, is a positive (a great!) thing; and that their voice matters and is being heard.

And that’s not all! In addition to the confidence-promoting benefits listed above, there’s something else happening, something a bit more… strategic. When we say, What a great question!, we are actually withholding an answer. Think back again to any time you’ve spent with any child, to when those questions started flowing. The easiest thing to do would be to just answer. Or to change the subject or invoke the quiet game. But ending a question with an answer or a redirect puts a stop to the learning.

Of course there are some questions that call for simple answers, but I would go out on a limb to say that most questions being asked by a child aren’t simple. Most questions are an indication that synapses are firing, that intellectual curiosity is at work, that discovery is happening, that we are in a moment when the child is inspired and motivated to learn.

It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. Albert Einstein

What a great question! seizes that moment of inspiration and motivation and turns into an opportunity for deeper learning. What a great question! isn’t the end of the conversation. It’s the beginning. It is followed by any number of prompts to further engage the child in learning. The guide might suggest the child seek out a friend to discuss the question; she might offer a list of resources for the child to explore and find answers; she might suggest a research project or report; or she might guide the child toward more questions, toward a deeper exploration. Because here’s the strategy: the ultimate goal of the guide in a Montessori environment is not to fill a child’s head with answers and facts. The ultimate goal is to foster a true, lifelong ability to learn.

Higher Order Thinking and Metacognition

As academic as these concepts might sound, higher order thinking and metacognition are routine practices that most of us engage in every day. If you’ve been to a book club, deliberated over a large purchase or argued over politics, you’ve engaged in higher order thinking. And if you’ve ever thought about what you’re thinking—if you’ve caught yourself being distracted or questioned your own thoughts on something—that’s metacognition. I’ve included some resources at the bottom of this post if you want to read more about these concepts and their more formal applications in the field of education.

Higher order thinking is the thinking we do that goes beyond memorization and recollection of facts. It’s the deeper cognitive processing that happens when we analyze, evaluate, compare, contrast, synthesize information, think critically, think creatively, use metaphors and analogies, make inferences, express opinions, make judgments and engage in what-if thinking.

Strictly speaking, metacognition is a form of higher order thinking. I’m giving it its own spotlight here because it carries with it something I believe the world could use a little more of these days. Research shows that when we think about our own thinking, we become more self-aware and possibly more empathetic.

So, higher order thinking, including metacognition, is the ultimate goal for the Montessori-educated child. But why? It is the kind of thinking that’s more complex, requires more concentration, more time, more work. It is, frankly, harder. And it also the kind of thinking that inspires deeper research and encourages students to explore. It fosters creativity and leads to discoveries. It helps children navigate difficult social situations and develops empathy. It has been shown to strengthen the brain by creating new synapses. And most importantly it instills in children a confidence in their own intellect. It gives them a true love of learning.

And it all starts with something that children bring with them naturally—an endless, wonder-filled curiosity.

References and Additional Resources

Photos courtesy of Melinda Smith and Melissa LeBeau. 

Upper Elementary Book Club – October Edition

The Upper Elementary Book Club takes monthly deep-dives into curated selections of books in a range of genres. Our on- and off-campus UE students work to complete the books by a deadline, along with complementary work to help them organize their thoughts and plan for discussion. Then they gather online each Friday to discuss the themes, settings, characters, plot lines and literary devices of their chosen books.

For October, UE readers have chosen from three middle-grade novels centered around characters with physical/mobility disabilities, each written in an engaging first-person narrative.

Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly tells the story of 12-year-old Iris, a deaf girl compelled to find and help Blue 55, a whale who is forced to live in isolation because he is unable to communicate with his pod. Iris is surrounded by people who misunderstand and underestimate her because she is deaf, and when she learns about Blue 55, she pours her heart and soul into helping him. A genius with electronics and technology, Iris decides to invent a way to help Blue 55 sing so he can communicate with other whales and find a pod. To accomplish her goal, she has to take a lot of risks and break a lot of rules. She has to venture out into the world alone. Song for a Whale is the adventurous, suspenseful and inspiring story of two misfits finding a connection.

 

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper tells the story of Melody, born with cerebral palsy, who cannot walk, talk or write. All of Melody’s life, most people have been telling her she’s incapable and not smart. One doctor even tells her parents she should be sent to a nursing home. But she knows she is smart, maybe smarter than anyone she knows… she’s just trapped inside her head. By the time she’s in fifth grade, Melody is determined to find a way to express her true self. With the help of a communication device, an integrating program at school, and a classroom aide, Melody begins to find her voice. Melody’s path is not easy—she faces cruelty from her classmates and constant doubting from some of her teachers. But she keeps going, relying on her grit, her love of music and her sense of humor to ultimately express her true self.

 

In Wonder by P.J. Palacio, we meet fifth grader Auggie, born with severe birth defects which left him with hearing loss and severe facial disfigurement. Auggie is never surprised by people’s reactions when they see his face. He’s used to it but he wishes he could just be seen as a normal kid. When his parents move him from homeschooling to a prep school, Auggie has to navigate the reactions of his new classmates and teachers. He is bullied, gawked at and betrayed by a new friend—all he wants is to quit school. Wonder is written in sections, told from different characters’ points of view—Auggie’s older sister, her friend and boyfriend, and two of Auggie’s new friends. Through each of these character’s stories, we learn more about Auggie and how hard life has been for him. And we also learn that there are people on his side, lifting him up. Auggie makes real friendships; with their support and the support of his family, he continues going to school and finds a place in the world.

Similar Titles to Explore

  • El Deafo by Cece Bell
  • War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
  • Roll with It by Jamie Sumner
  • Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling
  • Firegirl by Tony Abbott
  • Mascot by Antony John

 

The Expectation Effect, Montessori and Batman

Children are as independent as you expect them to be. Dr. Maria Montessori

Shortly after my daughter started at Villa di Maria at three years old, I found myself explaining why we chose Montessori to a family member who was plainly critical of our choice. I started by telling him all the reasons that jumped to my mind as relatable, reasons that would, frankly, move us through the conversation and onto other topics—I went to a Montessori school myself, the beautiful campus and classrooms, the hands-on learning, the outdoor time… and my favorite, Montessori does not underestimate what children can do and encourages them to learn and grow and do independently. In that conversation I gave the example of vegetable cutting—a favorite task of many a child in a Montessori Children’s House.

And that’s when I was reminded that the notion that a child can do things independently—or even should do things independently—is not universal. The family member was upset by the idea that a three-year old would use a knife. “Why in the world,” he asked (and I am paraphrasing from memory), “would it matter if a little kid used a knife? Why would you waste time teaching that? It will take forever, and she’s just going to cut herself. No three-year old needs to use a knife.”

“It’s not about the knife!” and “Don’t underestimate my child!” was what I wanted to say (shout). But I didn’t, because while I knew intuitively the importance of a child’s ability to complete tasks like vegetable cutting independently, I could not, right then, articulate the answers.

Which brings me to what might seem like a hard left turn: a 2015 episode of the podcast Invisibilia called “How to Become Batman.” The episode is about a behavioral/psychological phenomenon called the Expectation Effect, also known as the Pygmalion Effect, which shows that our expectations of others can shape their behaviors.

There are quite a few resources out there about the Expectation Effect from the realms sociology and psychology and Montessori pedagogy. I’ve listed some in the reference and resource list below. But I want to focus on “How to Become Batman” because it contains what I think is a perfect example of how the expectations we set for our children can shape what they are actually able to achieve, for better or worse.

When you lighten someone’s load, you don’t allow them to expand. Dan Norris, Vermont Association for the Blind 

In the episode we meet two men, both blind since a very young age, who grew up with very different expectations set for them. One, Adam, grew up being told he needed to be protected and assisted in the world, that there was very little he could do on his own because he was blind. The other, Daniel, grew up understanding that he could do anything that a sighted child could do. Each boy met the expectations set for him. By the time he was 11 or 12, Adam required assistance to do just about everything. At that same age, Daniel was getting to and from school, climbing trees, running, playing with other kids and riding a bike completely independently, using self-taught echolocation.

Adam and Daniel’s lives, their experiences, were very different because the expectations set for them were very different. It isn’t that Daniel had special training or therapies that taught him to do the things he could do, things that were pretty typical for a sighted child. It’s that he was never told he couldn’t do them. The adults in his life set the expectations high enough so that he could expand to meet them.

The adults in Adam’s life, while their intentions were only good, limited their expectations for Adam. Out of fear for him, an impulse to protect him, they limited what he was allowed to do by himself. They taught him, albeit inadvertently, that he was not capable of doing anything. And since he believed he was incapable, he was incapable.

Which brings me back to the significance of independence-building tasks like vegetable cutting in a Montessori classroom. When young children are allowed to practice and eventually master tasks independently, they are learning that they are capable. They are becoming competent. And each time they master a task on their own, they gain confidence and are motivated to keep trying at new things, to keep learning. Their competence grows and feeds their confidence. Their confidence grows and keeps them motivated. It’s a virtuous cycle.

So, it’s not about the knife… or at least, not only about the knife. There are fine motor skills and spatial senses at work when a child learns vegetable cutting. In fact, all of the independence-building tasks and activities in a Montessori environment come with added benefits like the development of a writing grasp and hand-eye coordination or the opportunities to concentrate and practice grace and courtesy. But the real gift of Montessori is that children are allowed to complete these tasks themselves—they are told that they can do it.

The value of independence is introduced in the Young Children’s Community and Children’s House with Practical Life activities but it doesn’t stop there. It is encouraged and fostered throughout the Montessori curricula. Each and every lesson, at every level, is given with the goal that the child will ultimately be able to master the work on their own. From zipping a jacket to mastering long division, our guides teach our children how to do the work themselves. It is part of their certification as AMI guides to study the developmental stages of children, to know what children are truly capable of and how to help get them there.

So does this mean that the adults in a Montessori environment are never helping children? Not at all. Guides and assistants are in the environments modeling and teaching not only academic lessons, but also social behaviors and even table manners. But they are also doing something that a lot of folks forget to do. They are watching and waiting.

Daniel, from “How to Become Batman,” talks about this. As an adult he teaches blind children and their families how to raise their expectations of what’s possible. The biggest obstacle, he says, is that people who mean well “will jump in half a second too soon, and they rob the [child] from that learning moment.” That half-second is exactly what Montessori allows to play out—the opportunity to learn.

What is so great about Montessori is that it does not underestimate what children can do. Of course there are limits based on age, size, verbal readiness and other developmental factors. But the adults in Montessori environments recognize those limits as well as what is truly possible within those limits. And we consciously raise our expectations to meet those possibilities.

Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed. Dr. Maria Montessori

Because our children are never told that they cannot dress themselves, do Egyptian multiplication, make their own lunches, work out problems with friends, use big words, fold laundry, write reports, take care of pets, read novels, dissect squid, carry their own belongings, keep their workspaces clean, write in cursive, identify types of leaves and animals, know the order of operations, write a play, compose a song… because our children are never told they cannot do these things, they continue to try, practice and to learn. And they build confidence. Montessori teaches them that they are capable people, that they can do anything.

References and Resources

The Absorbent Mind by Dr. Maria Montessori

Expect the Best: On the Power of Expectation

How to Become Batman on Invisibilia

Independence: the Birthplace of Self-Esteem

Pygmalion Effect: How Expectation Shape Behaviour For Better or Worse

Research every teacher should know: setting expectations

Thank you to Melinda Smith, Carrie Tallon, Jessie Braud and Heather Steinman for the photos.