Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Our First Alphabet Work Did Not Have Any Letters

I'll just say that again to emphasize: Cara's first alphabet work, the start of her ABC, did NOT have any letters (a, b, c, etc)--none at all.

And if you wanted to comprehend why, the answer is actually just that: Comprehension. I wanted to make sure that when I showed her the letter /a/ for example, she'd understand what it is, what it means, what it's for. A young child may still memorize letters and their names and/or sounds (which is what we emphasize in Montessori primary)--children are so logical that if you give them something and match it with a name/sound repetitively, they will make the connections one way or another soon enough. But that, even when accompanied with words and/or things that begin with each letter, wouldn't mean they actually grasp what letters actually are.

I understand the excitement to teach letters right away. Ideas and resources for them proliferate on Pinterest and swarm the World Wide Web. And more compelling for us, letters are so pervasive that children are bound to ask about them as they spot them in their environments (In the books you read usually, yes? And often parents take this interest as a sign to start with the alphabet--not for us though and I'll tell you more about when we started and what we looked out for in a bit). But despite their ubiquity, despite seeing them everywhere, letters are--actually language is--as Maria Montessori said, an "abstract instrument", a "complex cultural achievement". Letters are actually codes representing something else that children experienced first in their lives, something they encounter more readily and more concretely in their environments everyday: Sounds. Spoken language. 

Which newborns/infants (in utero even) experience first, through the people around them. Through people--not from gadgets or electronics--because the youngest child has a special sensitivity to human, interactive voice so much so that eventually when they are ready, they will be able to replicate only human sound and speech. So excited are we when we hear those first syllables "ba", "pa", "ma"; and all the more, that first word! But I encourage you to eagerly, but quietly, wait for another thing your child will eventually do when he is ready: Isolate sounds, beginning sounds to start. There--that's when we started--when Cara began isolating and articulating beginning phonemes (the smallest unit of sound in speech--these are the ones represented in print by graphemes which are the letters of the alphabet or a set of letters like igh in "high") which she began doing more frequently, more obviously, and more accurately when she turned 24 months. Her first one was "/b/, /b/, bus" while we were on a car ride. Spontaneously, on her own, without any prompting or previous presentation (of letters or their names and sounds) from us.

That's part of Phonemic Awareness! The ability to notice, explore, work with the individual sounds in spoken words.

I don't have a video of the first time she did it, but it was very much like Nicole of The Kavanaugh Report's experience here with her daughter Nora, who is just a little older than Cara.

If you think about it, if the letters of the alphabet are written codes to spoken sounds in words, then the start of letters/alphabet work (and as a Montessorian and homeschooler, I get asked this question often--whether or not I've started teaching letters) actually begins from infancy: Mindfully communicating with the child, expanding his world by offering him words, nomenclature. Alphabet work already started right then because the child would need a rich vocabulary in order to be able to explore speech sounds. And when Cara's exploration of spoken language, of words evolved; when she would--as children eventually would if given the time and trust to learn as they are naturally designed to learn--isolate phonemes, beginning sounds in particular for a start; what was our next step?

I prepared a little basket that has 3 objects that begin with the same sound--just objects, no letter.
Most of our miniature language objects are from the Lakeshore Alphabet Sounds Teaching Tubs.
We started with sound /a/ (use short vowel sounds). First presentation: I just covered the small basket with my hand for intrigue and mystery, brought out an object and said its name purposefully, offered the object to the child to let her explore and maybe repeat the name if she liked, placed the object on the table, did the same for the other objects in the basket, then just let her explore the objects on her own. And pretty soon, she was cutting the apple with the ax to give the alligator a slice--that's child-led pretend play! Plus, she was saying the names as she went along so that's exposure to and repetition of the words and their common beginning sound! That's Phoneme Identity.

Another day, we started doing Memory Games, taking turns hiding 1 of the 3 objects and guessing what's missing (we started with 3 objects, but you can make the activity simpler by using 1 or 2 objects at the beginning). Sometimes she'll know the answer just by looking at the objects that are left on the mat or table and remember what's missing; sometimes I'll describe the object I hid, giving her clues. At 24, 25 months then, Cara loved this activity, inviting me to it often.

And you can see in the video, she's organically, naturally isolating beginning sound, with no prompting from me!

When we feel we're ready for a new sound (one clue is when the sound basket hasn't been chosen and taken out from the shelf for a time), I change the objects inside the basket--another set of 3 objects with the same beginning sound. Just objects. Still, no letter. Just exposure to the beginning sound and letting her explore and eventually isolate the phonemes herself--and when she does, I just reinforce by saying, "I hear the /o/ sound, too" or "When I/you say 'insect', the first sound, the beginning sound I hear/say is /i/--I heard/said it, too".

When she was ready, we started doing little fetching games. On the table or on my hand, we' have two objects that have obviously different beginning sounds; then I'd tell Cara, "I'm thinking of something that starts with /a/ (for example)" or "Can you give me the object that has /i/ first/beginning/starting sound". Then she'd point or fetch. Pretty soon, we were doing it with three objects that have different beginning sounds, until eventually, with a whole basket of more objects (our favorite to use is her basket of wooden cutting fruits). Still, no letters. Just focusing on the sounds, the phonemes.

Other times we also did sorting games.

And after months and months of sound games (hearing, guessing, fetching, sorting), I introduced her to a letter (/a/ to start), saying that that was a symbol, a sign, something that reminds us of the sound we hear. And I'll talk about what we did with letters in another post, but for now I'll end with this story: We didn't start with learning about letters right away because there was so much more to do (Phonemic Awareness work) to lay the foundation for them to make sure that when we introduce letters, there's comprehension--that the child grasps what letters are really--codes, symbols, signs for sounds they would have already heard. I knew we were more or less on the right track, that there was some awareness and comprehension, when one day, after introducing to her some letters/symbols already, Cara and I were pretend-playing that we were in a cafe. Cara's Cafe. I had a wooden letter /c/ and a spare 3M hook so I told her, "Let's put up this sign (hanging the wooden /c/ on the wall). This is the sign, the symbol of Cara's Cafe." Just a sign, like a logo--I wasn't really intending to introduce the letter sound to her. But then spontaneously, all on her own, without prompting or previous presentation from me (much to my surprise actually), our then 28-month-old Cara walked up to the wall, pointed to the wooden /c/ I just hanged and said, "/c/, /c/, /c/, Cara's Cafe", emphasizing the beginning /c/ sounds of both words! The delight at the understanding, the revelation, in the discovery--on her face! And I tell you, on mine!

And so I encourage you--aside from enthusiastically celebrating the child's first syllables and first word, wait first with faith for his first phonemic awareness, phoneme isolation. It will happen when he's ready in an environment that allows for it, that does not hinder it. Aside from letting him explore his world and environment, let him explore spoken words and language. Then observe, marvel at a unique natural phenomenon--of a child, who started out smaller than the dot at the end of this sentence, revealing himself; working on his own natural development and growth.

Reminded me of this quote from Maria Montessori. "The teacher must derive not only the capacity, but the desire, to observe natural phenomena. The teacher must understand and feel her position of observer: The activity must lie in the phenomenon."

But also, "The teacher must not limit her action to observation, but must proceed to experiment... in this method the lesson corresponds to an experiment [and really, my beginning presentation with the sound basket here was just that--an experiment based on observation]."

"So in each 'lesson' that the teacher provides, he or she is actually engaging in a scientific experiment with the most fascinating subject that the world can offer; the unfolding development of the child."

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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

On Homeschooling No. 001: A Discussion About Perseverance and Details of the 2016 Conference

Much of our talks, my husband and I, these days are about/involve/lead to homeschooling (and rightly so since it's a decision we, for now, are making for our daughter, our family). In one, in our usual discussion format that's sometimes reminiscent of college Philosophy orals or thesis defense, he posed a question/thesis statement: Studying for and taking tests in schools, don't they teach an important value, that of perseverance? And if Cara was to be homeschooled, what about that--about persevering through something even if it was difficult, or even if it wasn't something you liked?

Thinking fast, just as in any orals (and mulling over my answers even long after the discussions and the exams were over) I replied:

1. Children are already naturally persevering, even from the start.

Watching the youngest of children discover their bodies, explore their abilities, and experience and interact with their environment--learn to control their movement--reach, grasp, turn, crawl, stand, balance, walk--there's already so much perseverance there! The newborn/infant's work is that--real hard work. And they do it with unforced determination.

I remember when Cara was around 3 months and she was learning, as per her own inner timetable, to turn from her tummy to back. For minutes and minutes, she'd roll from her back to her tummy (which she learned to do first and could do quickly at that time) only to persistently try to roll to her back again. It wasn't the easiest of things for her, but over and over she'd determinedly do this; even if she was happy and comfortable just rolling from her back to tummy and staying that way just the month before. Why. Because she knew she was ready for it. Because--where did I read this--when a child is ready to do something, he really needs to do it (#SensitivePeriods).

That perseverance, that drive; or to make it more Montessori, that "horme"--us parents don't even have to teach. It's already naturally there! They're intrinsically motivated.

2. Children will naturally encounter challenges that they'll have to persevere through.

Even when children choose their own work just as they do in Montessori environments or even when the curriculum is based on the child's interest just as in many homeschool set-ups; even when we "follow the child" on that path he knows he ought to tread (because of, again, #SensitivePeriods), there will be bumps along the way. For sure. Because if the child is not sufficiently challenged by a task, then he is also not intensely interested to work on it.

Children naturally gravitate towards materials and activities within their environment that will help them develop particular skills. A child who is ready to learn to stand will care more about that couch and that stool and use them to pull himself up more than any other toy you put in front of him. That means children are not just naturally persevering, they are actually essentially looking for a challenge! And they will find it and many opportunities to practice perseverance, hopefully, in a carefully prepared environment that has materials and activities that are tailored to their developmental needs and in real, practical, everyday life.

A photo posted by Mars Medina-Montessori on Mars (@montessorionmars) on

3. Security and Success

Challenging tasks or tests and difficult situations or seatworks per se do not teach perseverance. They provide opportunities to practice it, yes, but what teaches the child to pursue perseverance, its value, that it's something worth doing are security and success.

Security. When children, grown ups even, are in an environment where it is safe to fail, they won't be afraid to test ideas; to explore and discover, or maybe find nothing; to try and try again.

Success. Materials and activities in a thoughtfully prepared Montessori environment are age-, readiness-, developmentally-appropriate. That means there's necessary challenge, yes; but also always, always opportunity for success. Which means that children can work towards mastery (of the material or activity). And mastery comes through repetition, perseverance. And when children have had examples and experiences of success, they realize--they know from experience--that perseverance, determination, hard work works.

Read about one my student's "hardest work" in her "en-taaa-yerrr life".

4. There's wisdom, too, in knowing when to quit.

In previous job interviews, when asked to describe myself; a standard, practiced answer I used to say was that I don't have to like what I'm doing in order for me to do my best in it. It's a good trait to have--to be able to work well and hard despite your opinion of the task (despite not seeing the sense of taking that test which I felt a lot when I was in school). After all, not everything in life works with our preferences.

But there's wisdom, too, in knowing when to quit--or when something is no longer worth our time and efforts; or when something just needs to be put on hold, for a while, for now.

So for now, the decision is to homeschool. I'm sure we'll be needing (and practicing) a lot of perseverance with it, more on some days than others.

But we're excited because--

Here we are standing at the doorway that leads to the media launch for the Philippine Homeschool Conference 2016 that's happening on October 22. Edric, the president of the Homeschool Association of the Philippine Islands (HAPI), said we're at the tipping point of homeschooling in the country (and I have been feeling the exact same way)--so he told us to say to each other just that, "welcome to the tipping point of homeschooling". And I'll echo it here as well, my local friends in the Philippines; if you are thinking about homeschooling/already homeschooling/wherever you are in that journey or however you are doing it, welcome to the tipping point! With all the resources, options, opportunities, support, community, inspiration available now (and the many that are in the works, thanks to our friends from @wearehapi and @educatingforlife.co), it's an even more exciting time to go on this adventure! So, well, as they say, don't just stand there. The door's already open, come in, join us at the conference--October 22, SMX Convention Center, SM Aura Premier, Taguig City. For more details on the speakers, talks, and activities, maps, and how to register, download the 'Philippine Homeschool Conference 2016' app from the App Store (Android version available soon). Or visit www.educatingforlife.co (co, not com). #PHC2016 #FromRootsToWingsPHC
A photo posted by Mars Medina-Montessori on Mars (@montessorionmars) on

Here are more details about the 2016 Philippine Homeschool Conference:

There are more things to be excited about! Ivy of The Vine That Writes listed 10 Things We're (if I had to do it too, it would be the exact same list!) Excited About The Philippine Homeschool Conference 2016.

So join us! Register here.

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