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One Accidental, Unconventional Educator Thinking Out Loud about How I Got Here and Where Do We Go from Here?

Good morning to our BM community from Shanghai.




I found this wonderful group after my journey to combine bilingual education with the Montessori philosophy originally led me to the ‘Multilingual Montessori’ website. By way of the podcast of the same name I discovered the Bilingual Montessori project/community when Gabrielle Kotkov interviewed (click here) its founders.



Thanks to our BM colleague Stefanie Rubli for showing the way based on our somewhat similar backgrounds and styles of writing (click here for Stefanie's article); sometimes it's not the what or the why but the how that keeps you from getting started.




I've finally cobbled my own 'Notes' together to offer me two bits.


I'll document my path in the direction of Montessori education and interlace it with some thoughts on language learning, particularly for young learners, and how to incorporate SLA into Montessori.


Before commencing, to give some context to my thinking out loud, my observations on this matter are theoretical because to this point I'm not a Montessori practitioner.


In my 30s I taught in a pre-kindy classroom for 3 to 5 year olds in Taipei, Taiwan.  It was described as an 'American' school and hired usually male foreigner teachers and paired them with female 'Chinese' (speaking) teachers to create almost a mummy and daddy away from home, in the morning, in English.


I found it rewarding and enjoyable because it was a natural fit for my personality.  Also, I could see that despite the flawed way it approached the treatment of children, in terms of second language acquisition this approach got results.


Elements to build on:


1. Comfort within a community/tribe and familiar surroundings: As mentioned not always but frequently a native English speaking male foreign teacher was paired with a Chinese speaking local, female Taiwanese teacher.  Your class would be named for example 'Panda' class and the same 15-20 kids would share a classroom with the same two teachers for a complete school year and in some cases the entire 3-4 years that the child attended the school; this was clearly advantageous in many respects and did foster an English speaking 'home away from home'.


2. Routine/Solid Habits: This particular Taiwanese 'American' preschool (not a franchise but instead one model overseen by a single owner/administrator and his wife who had multiple schools within an hour radius in Taipei) did a good job of creating continuity of place and time; with the kids knowing and taking comfort from where they had to be and when in terms of lessons, bathroom/snack breaks, ballroom. The importance of routine for young children was recognized which promoted consistent habits, uniformity of situations within the environment.


3. English Immersion: All of the foreign teachers were native speakers and at this particular 

school, for whatever reason, many were Canadian males with a personal connection/commitment to Taiwan.  Some of the long term foreign teachers could speak Chinese well yet many teachers (such as myself) were unable to communicate with the children in Chinese even if they had wanted to, which necessitated the use of L2 and promoted SLA. 


Overall, there was a clear culture of 'we speak English here' in the mornings, while the foreign teachers were leading their classes, and the Taiwanese teachers also made an effort to use English first whenever possible. In fact, it became commonplace culturally for one child to say to another 'Oooh you spoke Chinese'. 


Like I said in spite of its flaws, in terms of the results achieved in creating an effective bilingual environment, this system/program after 3-4 years of English immersion with the same classmates, teachers, in the same classroom every day for 3-4 hours per day (good teachers arrived early to interact or 'play' with the kids before class and ate lunch and even napped with them) clearly achieved SLA results.


4. Emphasis on Phonics/Sentence Patterns: The school curriculum was effective but minimalist which put a lot of emphasis/onus on the creativity/resourcefulness of the teacher (which suited me).  Although there were simple lessons in Math and Science (and lip service paid to Experimentation/Exploration of the 5 senses in an interactive way), it was clear that  the main role of the foreign teacher was ESL. It was an immersive L2 environment with the Academic Director placing high importance upon Phonics (and sentence patterns). A series called Mac and Tab ('Mac is a rat, Tab is a cat') worked wonders for phonics when combined with the infamous rubber hammer and sticky ball games. 


It would appear that initially the idea was to have a 'Learning by Doing' curriculum with the appropriate materials organized in advance by Assistant Teachers as per rigorous lesson plans. 


However, unlike the franchise school they 'borrowed' their model/system from, focusing on a holistic, task based curriculum (likely Montessori ‘inspired’) with an emphasis on specific practical, experiential activities such cooking and arts & crafts (with more systematically mapped out lessons for Science and Mathematics) was never adhered to, prioritized. 


In actuality the focus was on PHONICS, English (Sentence Patterns) and Storytelling with the effectiveness of Math and Science lessons dependent on the ingenuity and adaptability of the particular teacher rather than well thought out, clearly defined lesson plans within an interconnected, comprehensive curriculum.


5. Story Time: Unlike other so called 'American' preschools there was not an emphasis put on the children sitting at desks and working with workbooks/worksheets nor was there rote reading out loud whereby the students repeated mechanically what the teacher read.  Storytime was storytelling in the sense that teachers were given license to express the essence of those tales that truly resonated with young learners to create a spirit of engagement via Q and A that stimulated student curiosity and imagination.




Aspects to review/reconsider:


1. Competitive games: I must admit as someone who grew up in a competitive, athletic environment this component of early childhood education initially had some appeal while at the same time posing philosophical and psychological challenges to the well being of a group of children as a whole.    


While under some conditions these physically active, competitive games can inject elements of fun and movement into lessons calling for the reinforcement of sentence patterns, there is clearly a downside to the socio-emotional health and wellness of not only individual children but the learning environment as whole.  


On the plus side, the competition and physicality can facilitate coordination and the development of motor skills. These activities can also generate an exciting way for young learners to practice and commit to muscle memory some of the key sentence patterns.  


Some of the excitement however is grounded in tribalism which most of us would agree is a two sided coin.  Zero-sum games, despite building emotional bonds between teammates and a sense of euphoria when victorious if not managed properly (the winning/losing is often manipulated by teachers to balance it out) can create friction between classmates and resentment within individual students. 


I have also observed, especially in certain profiles of children, a tendency to enter modes of heightened stimulation which are not easy to regulate. This pattern is compounded by an unwillingness from specific individuals and sometimes the entire group to study/learn unless these types of emotionally, physiologically charged events become core components of daily lessons… ‘Teacher… game!’


From my experience, games and similar stories are fundamental building blocks enabling children to contextualize challenges, confront problems/find solutions within the framework of small groups and larger dynamics.  


However, staying true to Maria Montessori's advocacy for harmony and peace, a shift toward cooperative and collaborative ‘learning’ oriented game-playing better promotes one to one relationship, small group and community building in our specific schools and within broader family and societal environments.


2. Drilling: Although competitive games have their redeeming features (eg. movement, motor skills) it's hard to find the good in drilling as a method of learning.  As the’ creative teacher’ tasked with inventing fun learning games I was chosen to develop and implement the reinforcement of sentence patterns. 


While educational games with a sticky ball-fishing rod and flash cards can be turned into a way to repeat, internalize patterns, the reality is that 3-6 year old kids (and their second language teachers) have their limits.  


After already having studied English for 3 hours in the morning you can pretty much guarantee that another couple of hours of intensive English combined with games similar to those from the earlier session is not going to spark their enthusiasm. 


However, given the need for testing to demonstrate that certain skills and a level of competency in the second language had been achieved, not only at times were we repeating games of this ilk but also lining young learners up to 'drill' them on sentence patterns in preparation for testing. 


As mentioned, not only was this tiresome and unenjoyable for students but also for the teacher who was forced to do it, namely me.



3. Testing: One of the catalysts pushing me away from this type of ECE environment, despite a fair amount of success with bilingualism and the family style atmosphere created within our classroom, was the next step in the 'drilling' procedure, testing.  


I believe in part due to cultural expectations (parents in some Asian countries expect concrete, demonstrable results in relation to money spent so testing becomes a necessary evil) that there was pressure on the school in terms of marketing, resigning clients; hence the emphasis on testing from such an early age.  


However, when it comes at the cost of demoralizing, demeaning and excluding children in the process then that's a heavy and unacceptable price to pay and the reason I started to say to myself, 'there must be a better way'.  

 


Drilling and testing in itself isn't appealing and appropriate, especially for this age group, but when it is accompanied by mistreatment and lack of respect for the rights of children it transgresses boundaries of acceptable human behavior.




What to leave in, what to take out? Enter Montessori philosophy and practice. 


So, what elements of a typical bilingual preschool overseas should remain and what aspects of this approach and atmosphere need to be diverged from? 


Clearly our orientation is Montessori education with the goal of pioneering ways of combining this philosophy and pedagogy with bilingualism.  


Hence, with an emphasis in Montessori on individual,  independent learning and even autonomous education, what possible significance could the prototypical ECE bilingual preschool hold for our purposes?

 

When addressing this matter I'm relying on my own experiences about SLA as both an ESL preschool and primary/elementary teacher and self taught language learner, and am also leaning on the observations/findings of our colleagues from the Bilingual Montessori community.


Here are seven key approaches for the promotion of a viable Bilingual Montessori school/program/movement with some overlap with a 'typical' bilingual preschool and some divergence from it:


1) L2 immersion at school 


2) a culture and practical application of SLA at home 


3) collaborative instead of competitive games/puzzles whereby more adept, advanced and in some cases older children assist less sophisticated learners within the context of cooperative, play-based problem solving 

4) task based orientation towards language learning whereby adult-guide manufactured information gap fills (grammar based) and/or fun activities such as baking, sewing, gardening are incorporated into the environment 


5) L2 early and often: meaning parents and educators realize that the quality of language lessons/learning may be rivaled in importance by its quantity vis a vis exposing children to the second language as early as possible and encouraging natural communication in said L2 (at school and at home) as often as possible


 6) setting up a reading program (school and home) blended seamlessly into the Montessori environment (English Corner); whereby students have individual, small group access to books, L2 materials in an orderly, systematic manner independent of adult facilitation, supervision 


7) Technology as the digital facilitator: the theme of quantity as well as quality matters to SLA in the sense that logistics is clearly a relevant consideration within Montessori learning spaces. 

Given a potential shortfall as per available school hours, teachers and (self and guided) student learning time in relation to the number of young learners who need our attention and assistance, hypothetically technological tools connected to AI and LLMs (Large Language Models) can help to bridge that gap at home, in moderation, using discretion and under parental supervision.

From birth we are digesting, interpreting, processing/deciphering input/data then as our productive faculties develop we’re communicating/sharing information.  


Thus, when striving consciously for Second Language Acquisition, the process of 'decoding' the native language is continually aided via the guidance of external helpers; every word, phrase, sentence needs to be deconstructed and reconstructed in order to to be constructed intelligibly within the parameters of a cultural, conceptual backdrop.




These '7 Guiding Forces’ or SLA helpers which/who adhere to Montessori principles/values consist of:


1) Adults at school: bilingual guides acting within a culture/context of L2 immersion 


2) Adults in the home: parents intentionally speak and create a culture of L2 at home and encourage learning/use of the second language: See the work of our BM colleague Danielle DesLauriers (click here) (NB: #1 and 2: in conjunction with a systematized 'reading program': See the work of our BM colleague Denise Fernandes: click here)


3) Peers: interaction with children who are adept, advanced and perhaps older than the L2 learner and assist/encourage the process of SLA


4) Games (and puzzles): collaborative 'learning' games which for all intents and purposes are a type of Task-Based activity: See the work of our BM colleague Lucie Urbančíková (click here)





5) Books (poems and songs): educational tools which are even more effective when introduced to children naturally, immersively via an English Corner: See the work of our BM colleague Romali Rosales (click here to see Romali's Community Conversation and here to read her article)


6) The Environment: Task Based Learning from Nature (the natural world as well as everyday practice such as gardening and cooking) and/or Manufactured (gap-fill and research) activities: See the work of our BM colleague Jana Winnefeld



7) Technology: digital facilitators: technological tools (in the home) although potentially controversial within a Montessori context could take advantage of developments in AI (LLMs: Large Language Models) to help bridge the gap between quality and quantity of exposure, practice in relation to SLA for our young learners. I'm considering further research into this area along with the creation of an educational App which promotes the development of: Listening, Speaking, Writing and Reading skills; not just for the ECE category but for elementary aged children, teens and even adults.





Thanks for taking the time to consider a few of my thoughts along with a summary of the ideas of our learned colleagues on how to increase not just the quality of L2 interactions and learnings but also the quantity of access to and practice with L2 in a Montessori environment.


I'm currently teaching EFL to 4 to 12 year olds in a small British private school in Shanghai and planning to take AMI Montessori orientation courses as well as the Montessori schools administrator course; with an eye to a Masters in Montessori education (which includes AMI guide training for the 6 months to 3 years and 3 to 6 groups).


Keep learning, keep growing and be well.


Take care, 

Andy Campbell


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