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Learning about the Brain October 19, 2018

Filed under: learning,mistakes,science,Uncategorized — bevfollowsthechild @ 8:22 pm

Our school is so lucky to be in a small college town.  Many of our parents work at the university, and are involved in research.  This allows us to have very interesting presentations by experts to enrich the curriculum.

So far this year we have had a presentation by a Mom who worked at NASA on developing food for the space program.  Then we had a dad share his knowledge of native edible plants that tied in very nicely with a study of the fundamental needs of humans, the need for food, and hunter-gatherers!  Yesterday we also had a parent working on neuroscience present information about the brain.

We used a KWL model to structure the presentation, starting with what we already KNOW, followed by listing WHAT we wanted to know, and ending with what we LEARNED.  When we combined our knowledge, we already knew a lot!  Take a look at this list!44293509_10156723426386774_2539760139473256448_nWe wanted to learn:

  • What does our brain look like?  What color is it?
  • What makes us laugh?
  • How does our brain grow?
  • How do scientists learn about the brain?
  • How do we think and learn?

We soon found out what our brains looked like as our visiting scientist brought three brains for us to look at and contrast and compare.  We looked at a half of a brain of a human, a sheep and a rat.  Of course that led to lots of other questions about how she had the brains, and what happened to the person and animals that owned the brains.  Our scientist explained that the person and animals had died before the brains were removed, and in the case of the person, the person had said before dying that he or she wanted to donate his or her brain to science, for students to learn.

We noticed that the human brain was much larger and heavier than the other brains, and had a lot more curves and coils on the outside.  The rat brain was almost smooth on the outside.  We saw that all three brains had a brain stem.  We decided that the bigger size and the more curves were needed by humans because we store more information and memories in our brains than sheep or rats.

We looked at pictures showing details of the brain seen up close through a microscope.  We also tried out a few tests to show that when we practice a skill, our brains learn and grow better at the skill.  As an example, a student volunteer used a pencil to draw a route through a maze, and was timed from start to finish.  Each time the student repeated the activity, he got faster and more accurate.

By the end of the presentation, we had all learned so much, including the classroom teachers.  Our visiting scientist gave each student a gift of a brain-shaped eraser as a reminder that mistakes are important because the brain learns by trying new things, making mistakes and then correcting the mistake.  If we only do things we already know how to do, we might not make many mistakes, but we won’t learn new things and help our brains grow.

Our scientist ended by saying that there still needs to be much research done on the brain so we can learn and understand more.  She told us that one of our questions – “Why do people laugh, and how does the brain find things funny?” – is one of the questions researchers are working on, because right now we don’t know for sure!  Perhaps one of our students will find out through research!


“Sticks and Stones may Break My Bones, But Words Can Never Hurt Me!” November 18, 2017

How many of us learned the above rhyme as a child, and how many of us still believe it is true?  For many of us, it is the names we were called that have caused us long-lasting hurt.

In the Children’s House, we focus on simple lessons of grace and courtesy and a safe place to practice these skills~ how to say please, thank you, sorry, accept an apology, accept or decline an invitation, offer to help, accept or decline help, how to invite a friend to play, how to ask to join a game, how to introduce yourself, introduce someone else, shake hands, greet someone, welcome someone . . ..

While the above lessons are still important in the elementary community, the focus of grace and courtesy extends to include the elementary child’s mission to discover for himself what is right or wrong, what are the rules of society, and how to develop a just and caring community, and find his or her place within it.  The children are developing their moral compass.

At the school where I work, the teachers and I are planning a series of lessons to help children develop their own inner moral compass.  The lessons offer opportunities to contribute to the well being of others, such as sewing and stuffing stockings for the local foodbank, to be distributed to other children in need.  The lessons will offer opportunities to participate in a Martin Luther King Junior project.  Students will be invited to participate individually or in groups to write or design a poster that shows how we can welcome someone into our classroom community.  The lessons will celebrate friendship, with a focus during February on celebrating random acts of kindness.  Lessons will include classroom meetings which offer opportunities to group problem solve, without blaming or shaming.  Other opportunities will include sorting actions into different categories, such as rude behavior, mean behavior and bullying behavior.

We introduced this focus on grace and courtesy with a discussion of the common saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.”  At first the discussion was around who had broken a bone and how the bone was fixed, until someone in the group said, “Well, I’ve never broken a bone, or been hit with a stick or a stone, but I’ve had my feelings hurt with words.”

Another child added that hearing very mean words left her feeling damaged.

This was the perfect opportunity to introduce our activity – bullying an apple!  I demonstrated then invited children to take turns coming up to an apple and saying something mean to the apple.  Here are some of the words used:

“I don’t like your color.”

“I just don’t like apples.”

“I don’t like your shape.”

“You are too small.”

“You are a wimp.”

“Grapes are better than apples.”

“Apples are no good.”

“I hate apples.”

There were a few giggles, but then the conversation turned serious as we realized everything that we had said to the apple, we had heard said to people.

Next we turned our attention to another apple, and this time said something nice about the apple.

“You are beautiful.”

“Apples are so good for you.”

“You are just right.”

“I like apples.”

We all agreed that we felt better ourselves saying nice things, so we talked about how when we say mean things it can make us feel mean inside, but when we use friendly words, we feel kind inside.

Lastly, we cut the apples in half.  I had secretly dropped the apple we bullied several times on a hard wood floor, so when we cut the apple in half, it looked bruised on the inside.  The other apple was unharmed.  Of course, after the kids response of, “WOW!”, I explained what I had done, and that this was a demonstration, to make a point, not an experiment to see if we could damage an apple with our words.  The kids were still impressed and got the point.  Words can hurt someone inside, even if they don’t leave an obvious bruise on the outside.

There were immediate requests to “Do it again, please,” but it was time for lunch!

This lesson, to me, is similar to toddlers practicing gentle touches on a flower.  It is a reminder, and an experience we can refer back to.  In the future, when children use mean words to one another, we can ask, “Do you remember when we bullied the apple with our words, and how we discussed how words can hurt us inside?”

I would love to hear from others on ideas they have used to help elementary children develop these important social skills.

I got this idea from a facebook post:


Learning from our mistakes! November 10, 2014

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Montessori learning materials are sometimes referred to as ‘didactic materials.’ This is just a fancy way of saying ‘self-teaching.’ There is a ‘control of error’ built into the materials so that the children know when they have made a mistake and will persevere until they correct their mistakes, and in this way teach themselves. This is how we learn from our own mistakes, by working to correct them.

So what is the job of the teacher, if he or she is not pointing out and correcting mistakes, as is more common in a public school setting? First of all, the teacher is observing the child, and noticing the errors the child is making, and watching to see that the child is gaining mastery over the errors. She might think of another work that will help the child. The teacher is often called a ‘guide’ in a Montessori school, so she is guiding the child to work on activities that offer the right amount of challenge, so that with perseverance the child can be successful. It’s not important to always get it right the first time. The child will be able to work with the materials and repeat the activity over and over again, until the skill is mastered.

So why don’t we just point out the mistake? Would that not be quicker and easier, than watching the child repeat the same activity again and again? Yes, but that’s not the most effective way for the children to see themselves as agents of their own learning, of being capable of independent thought and action, rather than dependent on someone else for their learning.

And what happens as the child moves into the kindergarten and elementary years? The teacher works with her students to help them correct their mistakes using tools such as control charts. As examples, a child reversing letters will be asked to check their writing against a correct model of the alphabet, and correct any mistakes he or she finds. The same goes for numbers. When a child is working on addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, there are again charts to help them check their work. A child will be taught to use the reverse operation to check their work. As an example, when a child works out with the division board and beads that 30 divided by 6 is equal to 5, he or she can check their answer by multiplying 5 by 6, and seeing if that answer is, indeed, 30.

After teaching elementary and first grade for many years, I feel this is even more important in developing literacy skills. Rather than pointing out every mistake a child made when reading, I taught them to ask, “Did that word make sense? Does it match the picture? Does it match the letters I see on the page? If not, can I read the sentence again and try another word that might make sense?” This is also true of early writing, if I expected correct spelling, I would have children not taking risks and writing stuff like:

‘I like cats. I like dogs. I like my Mom. I like my Dad.’

I would never get: ‘An albatross is a bird that is extinct. That means there are no more albatrosses left alive in the whole world.’

An albtrs iz a brd that iz extnkt. Tat menz thr r no mr albtrsz lft aliv in the hol wrld.

That was so much more interesting to read and write. And as a teacher, I noticed that work on vowels and vowel blends might help, such as work on the ‘ir’ blend, as in bird. I could also introduce some sight words to practice and memorize, such as ‘is’ and ‘there’ and ‘are.’

Throughout the year, the children’s reading and writing would get closer and closer to the correct form. At the end of the year, the children would look back on their earlier work, and easily spot their mistakes. They would laugh and say, “Look at how I used to spell the word ‘is’?” “Can you remember when I always wrote the number 6 backwards?”

There was no shame. The children owned the mistakes they had worked so hard to correct. They had done the hard work, rather than expecting me to always be there, pointing out their errors. That’s too easy for a Montessori child. It is so much more meaningful and productive when children correct their own errors. And then, they have the satisfaction of saying, “I did it!”

My daughter, Anna, a former Montessori student and now a professor of English uses a similar approach for her college students. She meets with every individual student in her composition class for a revision workshop, and asks each student to let her know what he or she wants to focus on ~ structure and organization, thesis statement, conclusion, sentence structure, transitions . . . They can’t do it all in one composition, but by focusing on what the student wants to work on, rather than Anna pointing all of the errors she notices (e.g. she does all of the work) the students are more invested in the process, and more likely to learn from their mistakes. When they receive their grade on the essays, she allows them to work some more on the essays, if they so desire, and make some more corrections and so improve their essays again, and gain a higher grade. She encourages her students to own their own mistakes and work to make improvements, but she does not do the work for them.

During my own education, my own writing was handed back to me covered in red pen. What did I learn? My teacher was smarter than me? I made a lot of mistakes? There was no incentive for me to go back and correct any errors, and so no opportunity for me to learn from my mistakes.

It’s so important to remember that mistakes are part of learning and an invitation to learn, but the process does take time and patience.