Notes from Head of School

 Peace Education Presentation on Grandparent and Special Friend Day

October 6, 2017
The national political rhetoric, climate, and actions of the past year have been disturbing to me. I could have been thrown into a deep depression, finding it hard to get out of bed each day, were it not for what we are doing here at Hilltop Montessori School. The events in Charlottesville, just before the start of the school year, especially hit home, as I went to the University of Virginia, and therefore feel a familiarity and attachment to that town. And now there is the incident in Las Vegas, and the challenges in Puerto Rico, again emphasizing how people are viewed and treated differently, and the many challenges we face as a society.
I have gone back to Dr. Maria Montessori’s writings and have been reminded of her motivations and discoveries. A hundred years ago she saw that the mechanized approach to education was designed to produce people who blindly followed leaders and allowed themselves to be controlled. She put forth the idea that children could be respected as individuals, given choices in what and how they learned, and be supported by caring adults who served as guides to an environment prepared for their learning. This approach supported children in developing independence along with a deep appreciation and understanding for the connectedness and community that they have with all people, with all living creatures, and with the world and universe. Montessori can be seen as an approach to education, but she also developed it as a methodology towards world peace. She evolved her ideas in the context of World War I and II, and was nominated several time for a Nobel Peace Prize. Many of her comments on education and peace resonate strongly today.
At Hilltop Montessori School, we “teach” peace in many contexts:
  • self – developing inner peace and the skills to make peace with others
  • environment – instilling an understanding and appreciation for the environment
  • cultural – celebrating our differences and knowing our connectedness, compassion for all
  • community – living our supportive interdependence
The role that Hilltop Montessori School is playing in supporting the development of responsible citizens, and striving towards peace has kept me going. This was the theme of the message I shared on Grandparent and Special Friend Day along with this presentation. I welcome any comments or reflections, by emailing me or stopping by anytime.

September 8, 2017
Notes from the Head of School
It is only week two and the classrooms are already settling in and getting “normalized”. As Montessorians we use the term normalized to describe when the students have the rhythm of the day and, together and independently, work and grow where they need to.
Children are choosing their “work” and building their concentration. In Montessori classrooms we call the student activities “work” because the children are choosing materials that are helping them to grow where they are developmentally needing to grow, and that is their “work” as children. Dr. Montessori also chose this word knowing that “work” should ideally have the same joy and appeal for adults, as the activities the children are choosing on which to work. We should all be learning and growing through our “work”.
As guides in the classroom, the adults are careful not to interrupt a child at work. We want to foster that concentration and focus, rather than encourage distraction. This is something you can work to build at home too. When your child is engaged in something, let it come to a natural close, rather than interrupt with any words of praise or requests for another activity.

Not So New to Us!

So often things that are reported as new “discoveries” or trends in education are things that Maria Montessori observed 100 years ago and incorporated into the time tested, scientifically proven approach we use at Hilltop. Three such ideas are: the importance of movement in learning, the benefit of developing internal motivation rather than being given external rewards, and how to have STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) in education in an integrated, concrete, real-world way. These are all important components of the curriculum and experience that students have at our school from toddlers through Middle School.
The connection of the Hand to the Mind:
This article, “Why Kids Need to Move, Touch and Experience to Learn,” explains the reason behind our classrooms that encourage movement, and materials that require manual manipulation. The human mind is wired to learn through moving and experiencing, not through sedentary rote memorization. The classroom and outside environments at Hilltop, encourage concentration, movement and experiential learning.
Internal Motivation, Not External Rewards:
This article “Could Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose be the Keys to Motivating Students?” uses a TED talk by Daniel Pink to suggest that, just as financial incentives have been seen to not motivate employees to do creative problem solving, so using tests and grades and other external motivators are not beneficial to children. To foster intrinsic motivation students should be given opportunities to do real-life problem solving and feel a sense of purpose from doing real tasks where they can develop a sense of skill, pride and accomplishment. This can be:
  • serving a friend snack, as the toddlers do with great enjoyment and pride
  • washing a table, a classic Montessori activity often accomplished in our Children’s House classrooms
  • writing persuasive letters to the Head of School on why Lower El needs a bigger garden, and seeing it through with materials, digging, and planting!
  • building lamps for the auction, using precise measurements, calculations, and skilled craftsmanship
  • running a bagel business, soup business, coffee cart, and providing childcare to raise money for an odyssey (as our Middle Schoolers doSTEM and STEAM have been what Montessori is all about for 100 years:
There is a movement in education circles to talk about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) or when you throw the Arts back in there it becomes STEAM. This approach emphasizes how all fields relate to each other and that project based learning on real life situations is a better approach to learning that segmented subjects with hypothetical questions. Again, this is what Montessori is based on and what happens every day at Hilltop Montessori School.
  • The metal insets combine art, with geometry, and are a preparation for writing.
  • The “timeline of life” is a lesson in history, biology, geology, and can be beautifully rendered in colored pencils, or felted wool!
  • Developing the “Museum” projects in Upper Elementary requires combining disciplines to prepare a written and physical illustration to communicate a complex concept.
  • Building water wheels combines math, physics, and design in a hands-on building project
At Hilltop Montessori School we do STEAM!

Classism in the Classroom

April 16, 2015

On Wednesday, Kerstin (Lower Elementary Teacher), Rebecca (Children’s House – Willow Room Assistant) and I attended a training at the Vermont Learning Collaborative on “Classism in the Classroom” (http://www.learningcollaborative.org/classism). At Hilltop, we work consciously to address diversity and inclusion in many ways. In Southern Vermont, we do not have as much opportunity to experience racial and ethnic diversity but we strive to whenever possible. We do have more diversity of family structures and many members of our community who are gay and lesbian. We also have the opportunity to be sure to be inclusive of the economic diversity that we have. And, as we are thinking about expanding that economic diversity, we want to be aware of all the potential class biases that we might have. This training, in conjunction with the discussions we have been having with students, faculty, and the board, are informing how we move forward with increased awareness and inclusion. It is important to ask:

 “Is this accessible to all students?” “Are we excluding people with this curriculum/book/action?”
Much of the training served to reaffirm the cultural curriculum and peace curriculum that is a part of our programs. And, there is always room to analyze, update, and improve.
Some of the topics that come up in this context include:
– how can fundraising be handled in an inclusive, respectful way
– how directly should we be addressing class differences in the classroom with children at different program levels
– what books and materials could we add at different levels to be sure to be including people of different classes
– how could the “fundamental needs” curriculum of Lower Elementary be augmented to more directly address class differences
– additional fees for extra things (after care, pizza lunch, etc.) can exclude some, despite our attempts to include all the fees in the tuition
– would a sliding scale of fees for some things be a way of being more inclusive
We will be continuing to look at these topics within the current context of our community and looking to the future.

An Invitation to All

We realize and appreciate that you are trusting us to educate your child and to help her or him grow in a way that, for many of you, is very different from your schooling. We know that without grades and test scores, you are having to use other measures to know that your child is growing and thriving in this environment. We really emphasize the process in the work that is done here, but often it does result in an amazing product too. Many of the events coming up next week give you an opportunity to appreciate the products of the works of the students in our older programs. Please mark your calendar to attend these events. If your child is younger, you and your family are more than welcome to attend these events. The Poetry Night for the Middle School is sure to be magical in our new Arts Barn theater. These events are a wonderful way to see what Hilltop Montessori School encourages in all students.

Lower El Poetry Performance
Thursday, December 18th 8:45AM

Upper El Museum
Thursday, December 18th 2:00PM
Friday, December 19th 8:30AM

MS Poetry Night
Thursday, December 18th 7PM

Let’s Grow Kids

By Tamara Mount, November 14, 2014           

Time and time again, Dr. Maria Montessori’s ideas from 100 years ago are proven by modern science. Hilltop has been participating in the state-wide campaign, Let’s Grow Kids (http://www.letsgrowkids.org/), a public education campaign to raise the awareness of the importance of the early years in development. This campaign is to make Vermonters aware of facts that Maria Montessori noted in her early writings, “The most important period of life is not the age of university studies, but the first one, the period from birth to the age of six.  For that is the time when man’s intelligence itself, his greatest implement is being formed.  But not only his intelligence; the full totality of his psychic powers. At no other ages has the child greater need of an intelligent help, and any obstacle that impedes his creative work will lessen the chance he has of achieving perfection.”

Or, as Let’s Grow Kids puts it, “Eighty percent of a child’s brain is developed by age three and 90% is developed by age five.” And, “Getting kids ready for school means more than helping them with their ABCs, packing their lunch boxes, filling their backpacks, and getting them to the bus on time. It starts the day they’re born with quality early experiences.” Montessorian’s have known it all along – the early years of development are critical and are worthy of investment – the investment of providing the quality experiences that happen at Hilltop every day.

Hilltop Investments Moved to Socially Responsible Funds

Hilltop Investments Moved to Socially Responsible Funds

By Tamara Mount, November 7, 2014

The Hilltop board is pleased to announce that we have recently moved our investments into a socially responsible portfolio that will be managed by the local firm Prentiss Smith and Company.  They evaluate companies from a variety of perspectives including environmental impact, executive management transparency, demonstrated long term planning, and the societal benefits of their products and services.  This move now puts our investments in line with our mission and goals to be good stewards of the environment and the community. It comes at a time when we have completed current new building expenses and are now focussed on protecting and growing our “Campus Reserve Fund” to maintain our beautiful facilities. We will also be preparing for an “Endowment Fund” to help ensure continued financial aid for future students. An endowment will not only ensure economic diversity by supporting financial aid, but it also creates long term financial stability for the school. This move is something the board has been interested in doing for some time and we are pleased to now be in a position to make such investments.

Additional Words from Board Treasurer, Rich Wolfe

In response to being asked why he chose to serve on the board and how he views his role as treasurer, Rich said “As newcomers to the area and the Hilltop school community,  we were so pleased with the way Greta was welcomed into her new Middle School class, and the experience she was having with her teachers. Katy and I have had a long relationship with Montessori education (Katy also attended Montessori school and worked at the schools where our son, Robbie, was in programs from toddler – 8th grade) and we immediately recognized the quality of the program at Hilltop. We wanted to support the school in whatever way we could, and I think my role as treasurer is logical because I have worked in finance my whole life (starting when I was in middle school and my father gave me the responsibility of managing our household finances). My hope is that as treasurer I am able to communicate with the greater school community about Hilltop’s financial health and help plan for the school’s future.”

Annual Fund

By Tamara Mount, October 17, 2014

I was recently reminded, by a parent, about how long Hilltop has dreamed of having a Learning Specialist on staff to assist teachers and students. Wendy’s involvement with the children working hard to learn to read has indeed been a dream come true. We’ve also seen wonderful benefits, as a staff and community, to having Becky work as an assistant to Lower Elementary: helping with math, with transitions to activities, and providing a more age appropriate After Care for just the elementary age. We have also been thrilled to see Toddlers join our midst – everyone regularly stops to peek in at the little ones learning how to navigate their environment.

These new additions are some of the things that our fundraising and grant writing helps to make happen. These “extras” are wonderful benefits that cost more than what tuitions cover. We are thrilled to be able to provide these this year and look forward to further improvements. Please consider these investments in our staff and programs as we begin this year’s Annual Fund . . .

The Importance of Blending the Three Years within a Program

by Tamara Mount, Sept 12, 2014

One of the critical components of an authentic Montessori program is mixed age groups, usually three years in the same classroom. Hilltop has always had three years together for Children’s House, Lower Elementary and Upper Elementary. At times labels for the three years within each grouping have been used. To further blend the years, we are moving away from the using grade names and only occasionally using the “Younger”, “Middler”, and “Older” names. The more fully these three years are mixed, the greater the benefits. A few of the advantages of having the mixed ages are:

Older children solidify their learning and confidence when helping or teaching younger children, and younger often learn better from another child than from an adult.

Children can learn a skill or topic when they are developmentally interested, not at a predetermined time when students are “normally” learning that topic. All children of a set age do not need to be learning the same skill.

Children can take the time they need to work on a topic and then move to the next, whether that be longer or shorter than others, without being labeled “ahead”/”advanced”/”accelerated” or “slow”/”remedial”/”special”. A child with particular strength in one area can move more quickly through material, while a student who needs more practice on concepts can take more time. In doing this, they are just getting the “lessons” and doing the work that is right for them, no labels necessary.

Social diversity among ages gives more choices for friendships allowing for different levels of maturity and interests among ages. Students are not restricted artificially by chronological age but have a greater variety of friends to choose among.

In this type of environment, the distinctions of grade and the perception of someone being ahead or behind their grade don’t exist and students see each other, and themselves, more as individuals learning what they need to learn, able to help others in some topics and benefiting from others in another subject. Elementary age students might wonder at being in a math group with so many older children, or being in a reading group with younger children. In time, however, these perceptions break down and students see themselves and others engaging in material that is interesting and appropriate for them. They also begin to relish their roles as teachers themselves.

This mixed age grouping is not only for specific lessons, but also for the choices of follow-ups to the cultural/science lessons. For example, with the Lower Elementary class studying Nouns, there is one follow-up work to “label the environment”, another to list nouns that fit into categories (things that are “fuzzy”), and another work of identifying nouns in a “big book”, or classifying concrete and abstract nouns. If a child is really getting into nouns, they could do them all!

In conjunction with this academic and social mixing, we also have projects that are built into the traditions of each classroom, especially in the third year of each program. The “Olders” of Children’s House have pottery class in the winter; the “Olders” of Lower Elementary their biography and atlas projects, and the “Olders” of Upper El their Individual Study Project (ISPs). These traditions are important rite-of-passage and leadership opportunities at each program level.

We need partnership from parents to help reinforce the fact that people learn things at different times and paces at Hilltop Montessori School. Each child works on the lessons that they are ready for and interested in:

  • when your child wonders why they are in a math group with so-and-so, explain that the groupings are determined by who is ready for each lesson
  • when your child talks about a new friend, rather than asking what grade that child is in, ask what your child likes most about them, or what they talk about, etc. (For additional tips on questions to ask your children that get more conversation going than “How was your day at school?” check out this article.
  • if your child wants to be in a reading group that is doing chapter books, encourage her to read more with you at home to become a more fluent reader (it takes practice, not smarts)
  • if your child is asked what grade they are in by a friend or family member, please help them explain the three year groupings and use it as an opportunity to explain one of the many attributes of Montessori.