DVMS Mom File: Valerie Bennett

By Jason Phillips

We have an ongoing interest at DVMS in the relationship between Montessori education and technology. We have published a couple of articles in the past summarizing some of the viewpoints in the discourse of ed-tech, both Montessori-specific and more general in nature (click for our most recent). This month, we’d like to introduce you to Valerie Bennett, one of our Montessori Moms and an educator deeply engaged in the ed-tech world. Valerie is a Primary Learning Resource Teacher at Dundas Central Public School with the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board, has been a Montessori Mom since September 2012, and has been using ed-tech tools to extend the programming she delivers as a Learning Resource Teacher – leveraging technology to both assist students with learning disabilities and to provision digital resources to enhance what she can deliver with tangible materials.

I love Valerie’s informed and balanced perspective on the place and role of technology in education. Both she and her husband (click here to read about Jared) are two of the people that make DVMS’s community such a great and fortunate thing to be a part of, and it truly is an honour that they have chosen DVMS for their son. Read on to learn what makes Valerie so special.

You are quite engaged with education reform/progress/evolution, and with the ed-tech field, what is your general take on the place of technology in contemporary education?

Assistive Technology (AT) in particular can be transformative for students with unique or complex learning profiles.  AT has the capacity to help students who may otherwise struggle reach their individual potentials.  For example, a student with a Learning Disability in the area of phonological processing may not be able to decode text at his/her actual comprehension level.  AT would enable that text to be read orally for the student, who would then be able to engage with the text as any other student in his/her class would.  That same student might use specific AT to assist with written output.  He/she could either use word prediction software or a speech-to-text program to produce his/her written responses.  All the cognitive work is done by the student alone — his/her access to text and ability to produce written output have been compensated for by AT.

Generally speaking — for all students —  technology allows alternative ways to express thinking beyond pencil and paper. It allows students to express themselves as multimedia creators (filmmakers, musicians, authors), and provides them a platform to publish their works and to access an authentic audience in ways that words in a notebook may not provide.

Technology also provides a connection to worldwide expertise, and allows the students to personalize their learning. This may be via a Skype call to the other side of the world, or as a means to locate local talent as a first step towards face-to-face conversation.

Your son started his first year of Lower Elementary at DVMS this year, what are your impressions of Montessori as an educational model?

Having already done a great deal of reading and research about Montessori — both formally in school and informally for my own knowledge — I was already a believer in the genius of the Montessori model.  There are far too many reason to list here, so I will instead list the most important elements for me as a teacher and parent.

Within the Montessori educational model, there is very little formal evaluation and teacher assessment is largely invisible.  This allows students to develop deep intrinsic motivations for learning, setting them up to become lifelong learners.  Because much of their learning is self-directed, students have a sense of control over their own days and their own paths.  They are able to freely develop likes, dislikes, and passions — learning and socio-emotional well-being are positively impacted in this environment.  The logical unfolding of the “curriculum” connects closely with child development — theories and ideas are offered when students are ready to understand them.  Starting with the largely sensorial and practical in Casa gives students a solid base of knowledge with which to make sense of the more abstract ideas and world around them as they move through to their adolescent years.  Lastly, the ordered and muted natural environment in which students are free to move contributes to developing a sense of calm. Ultimately, I believe that the day-to-day experiences of school are as important as the cumulation thereof — we don’t just want our children to be prepared for “life after school,”  we want them to have joy and adventure in the everyday.
From our very first observation in Dylan’s Casa room, we saw that philosophy being put into practice. Both my husband and I knew immediately that there was something very special about DVMS.  Eli’s experience in Holly and Catherine’s Casa class was wonderful  – he absolutely thrived academically, emotionally, and socially.  And if wanting to go to school on Saturday is any sign, then this year in Noeleen’s Lower Elementary class is sure to be another great adventure!

Ok, let’s bring the two together; is there a place for technology in Montessori?

As long as Montessori philosophy continues to be the guiding principle, I think there is a place for technology in Montessori education.  In Casa, the importance of the tactile materials to help children experience and understand their environment trumps flashy devices.  In later Lower Elementary, and certainly Upper Elementary and Adolescent years, technology could be used in a variety of ways without degrading or changing the overarching philosophy.  I’m thinking:  research, connections, creative publishing…even building apps could be a great project for older students.  Regardless of the particular educational model, I think that technology should be used more as a tool for production and less as a tool for consumption.

I know you’re a big fan of Montessorium and their Montessori apps, how do you use them to supplement or extend your son’s Montessori experience? Do you use the Motessorium apps in your professional role, too?

Surprisingly, I use technology very, very rarely at home in an academic capacity with my son.  In fact, the majority of his interaction with ed tech is when I employ him as a tester to determine if the app might be something I could use in my own professional practice.  Although both my husband and I are deeply involved in ed tech, we have very strict limits on screen types and times at home for our son.  Other than reading daily (actual paper books), I do very little formal academic activities with him at home.  We play.  We draw.  We pick up bugs.

Pickin' up bugs. Always fascinating.

Bug, found without Google’s help.

I use tablet technology regularly to complement the intervention programs that I provide for my primary students.  I find that this specific tech encourages flexible thinking, increases engagement, increases opportunities to make thinking visible, and reduces fine motor frustration.  While I use tablets daily within my intervention programs, I do not use “educational games.”

I use the Montessorium apps specifically because of the aesthetic and the methodology.  Because we don’t have Montessori materials [at the school I work at] that foster sensorial connections to literacy and numeracy, I feel like the Montessorium apps provide some element of that experience.  They have succeeded in capturing some of the Montessori method in digital format.  “Intro to Letters”  and “Intro to Cursive” give my students the opportunity to trace the letters while hearing and repeating the sounds — connecting the semi-sensorial experience to the sound.  “Alpha Writer” allows students to use their burgeoning phonological skills in a variety of ways — beginning with identifying beginning sounds to “writing” words and letters, similar to what Montessori students do with wooden letters.

You’ve become somewhat known as the “cursive lady” in your online professional learning network (and I apologize for our role in that). Can you give us your take on the place of cursive in contemporary education?

I think that the “cursive lady” moniker is interesting. Looking closely at my Tweets, and reading the supporting evidence I share in longer-form articles beyond the confines of 140 characters (articles like this one and this one), would reveal that I’m not trying to advocate for the return of cursive to the public school system. Cursive alone, especially taught in the later primary grades, after students have already acquired letter recognition, basic printing, and reading skills — as an additional way to put words on paper — squanders the benefits cursive offers to our youngest students. When used as a strategy to help students with beginning literacy skills, cursive is more aligned with the smooth motions of a child’s emerging motor skills, provides more control through consistent contact with the page, helps eliminate “b” “d” confusion, and helps students identify and separate words within their written sentences. Practicing cursive after these other skills have been acquired is like reading my tweets without following the supporting links: some substance may exist, but the real learning is neglected. Cursive works in Montessori because it is part of an integrated education philosophy encompassing early literacy and fine motor skills. Unless it can be utilized in that fashion, it’s a calligraphy class.

Thank you Valerie.

(Note: neither Valerie nor DVMS has any association, professional or otherwise, with Montessorium. We are discussing them here as a Montessori-specific piece of the larger ed-tech field).

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