Interview: Alison Awes, Montessori/OG Connection

AwesToday’s interview is with inspiring individual Alison Awes. She directs the AMI Elementary training course at the Montessori Center of Minnesota and at Assoziation Montessori Schweiz in Lucerne, Switzerland. She is also the Co-Director of Elementary Training at the Maria Montessori Institute in London. Alison holds AMI diplomas for Primary and Elementary levels, a B.A. in Art History from Smith College, an M.A. in Latin American Studies from Tulane University, and a M.Ed. in Montessori Education from Loyola University in Maryland. She has taught in both six-to-nine and nine-to-twelve classrooms. Alison is an AMI examiner and has served on the boards of private and charter Montessori schools, as well as other organizations including the AMI Elementary Alumni Association. Ms. Awes attended Montessori school until the age of twelve. 

Camp Spring Creek: How did you find your way into this particular niche area of overlap between OG and Montessori?

Alison Awes: I’m dyslexic and I went to Montessori school as a child in the 70’s and 80’s, when there wasn’t much awareness about dyslexia or processing disorders. It wasn’t until I was in college and my younger brother was in middle school and he was diagnosed with dyslexia, that I made the connection. A lot of things came together for me at that time and I went and got tested as well. So much opened up for us as a family at that point and the pieces fell into place.

I moved on to art history and eventually art education, but I felt my specialization was too narrow. I went home and had lunch with my old Montessori schoolteacher in Minneapolis, and he suggested Montessori training. Once I got into the classroom, my own experience with my own learning was finally able to support the psychology and development of the children I was teaching.

I didn’t take OG training until much later. As you know, Montessori started in many ways with special needs children. So much of what she discovered was born from this idea of different learning styles. Eventually, when I took OG training, I saw that the principles there were the principles I was already using in Montessori—for example, multi-sensory work. I saw very clearly that the vast majority of the principles in both of these systems were working together.

CSC: How have you integrated OG principles into your Montessori classrooms?

AA: Because I work mostly with adults who are training to be Montessori teachers now, I’ll share how I’ve worked with them. When I teach trainees, I teach that we need to remember that every child is a learner and we’re there to nurture that. We can’t make them learn, but we can create the psychological and physical environment for their optimum development. That’s true for children with dyslexia as much as it is true for any other learner–a child with a physical impairment, a child with no hindrances at all, etc.

My hope now is that my trainees take those principles and use that to support all of what they do. If 3-year-old children aren’t attracted to rhymes, that’s something a teacher needs to take note of. Just because a child isn’t reading yet, doesn’t mean a teacher can’t have his/her eyes open to see who is at risk. It’s the awareness piece that I’m able to bring to my trainees.

CSC: You wrote a phenomenal article about dyslexia and the Montessori classroom that details Congress’ National Reading Panel results, which in large part included recommendations that are very Montessori or OG related. Yet the results were sometimes criticized, and other times what they suggest has been hard to actually implement in the public school system. Why is that?

AA: This speaks to the bigger question about education in the United States right now. Over and over, we see this newfangled something that’s supposed to be the save-all in education. For example, “Oh let’s all be multi-sensory!” or “Let’s arrange our classrooms in tables instead of desks!” and this one trick will fix everything. It’s very difficult to get people to shift their thinking about how children learn.

There are also financial and political factors—textbook companies, taxes. For Montessorians and OG folks who are so passionate about what we do, there’s also a lot of “buyer beware” in the marketplace. Anyone can throw a Montessori sign on their door, but it may not have anything to do with the true, certified Montessori principles. OG has to face that somewhat as well. But if the neighborhood school with the Montessori/OG sign on its door does a poor job, that can lead to misconceptions.

Our educational system is rooted in the factory model. It was designed to help children who only went to school if they couldn’t find work on the farm. They were told that “children are seen, not heard.” None of that had to do with the child as his/her own person. Trying to break those molds is really tricky. What it boils down to is respect for the child and we’re not very good at that as a society. We’re good at putting a child in a playpen or in front of technology so the parents aren’t bothered. These things are really ingrained, even in the most well-intentioned parents. As a society, we have to look at that, too.

CSC: For our readers who may not be familiar with Maria Montessori’s training methodology, your article offers a quick glance: “Teachers study observation theory and practice specific observation techniques so that once leading their own classroom, they are prepared to consider different learners’ approaches in context and devise strategies based on their knowledge of the different ways in which learning can work. Teachers learn about the nature of the child, including her sensitive periods, psychological characteristics, and human tendencies. In this manner, Montessori teachers already have preparation for noticing, and then meeting, the specific needs of any individual learner in their charge.” Are there ways in which this method, proven to meet the needs of children of all learning styles–and dyslexic children in particular–can be integrated into the traditional university teacher training programs? How, specifically, and who is at the forefront of this integration right now?

AA: Integration is a tough one. Our early university classes (Intro to Education, Intro to Psychology) don’t often mention Maria Montessori. I think just having a mention in those kinds of survey courses would be a great place to start.

There are some universities where you can get an AMI certification and a master’s at the same time—Loyola University Maryland, Saint Catherine University in Saint Paul, and I believe in San Diego and Hartford as well—but it’s still two separate things. You have a Montessori certificate and you have a Master’s in Education. There are also other places where folks are trying to get AMI training count towards a teaching degree for the public education system.

One of the things our students at Saint Catherine’s do is actual research. This addresses an area as Montessorians that is really lacking—and that is published, credible research. We need more documentation for society to start to make advances. That’s what people respond to and if we want to see change, we’ve got to start there.

I do think that whenever the day comes that a person can get their Montessori training and their state license to teach in a way that doesn’t require two master’s degrees, that’s when we’re really going to open doors.

OpenDoors of Asheville & OG Training Snapshots

One of our most coveted partnerships is with OpenDoors of Asheville in Buncombe County, NC. This organization connects local children living in multi-generational poverty with an active, individualized network of support, enrichment, and education opportunities. Last spring, we launched a Classroom Educator training with them. For the past two summers, OpenDoors teamed up with Camp Spring Creek to provide scholarships for camp. We also got to feature their Executive Director, Jen R., in this article about summer slide and highlight her amazing contributions to OpenDoors in this interview. To celebrate this ongoing partnership and to recognize the teachers and administrators who participated in our most recent Classroom Educator Course, here are a few snapshots of them, hard at work with Susie.

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Recipe for Reading by Nina Traub

UnknownNow in it’s third edition, Nina Traub’s Recipe for Reading is touted as a go-to, must-have guidebook for those interested in using sequential, multisensory teaching methods with early readers. It has been praised by adminstartors, homeschool parents, public and private school teachers, and more. And if the philosphy really strikes you, additional “workbooks” and guidebooks can be ordered to accompany the lessons suggested in the book itself. Happy reading!

Susie Presents at TN IDA

This month, Susie will travel to Brentwood (near Nashville) to present at the Tennessee International Dyslexia Association Regional Conference. The conference is still open for registration, and takes place April 17-18 at Curry Ingram Academy. Susie will have a booth set up for Camp Spring Creek and will lead several break out sessions between keynote presentations at the conference. The topics for this year’s keynote presentations sound spot on:

  • “Elephant in the Room: What We Overlook Regarding Dyslexia” presented by Nancy Mather, PhD.
  • “Lessons from an Evolving Reading Brain for Dyslexia, Intervention, & Global Literacy” presented by Maryanne Wolf, Ed.D.
  • “A New Look at Learning Disabilities” presented by G. Emerson Dickman, III, Esq.

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Big Heart Ben Update: 6 Days to Go!

There are only 6 days left to help Ben reach his goal!

The Big Heart Ben scholarship initiative begins with a single camper. Ben has dyslexia and struggled academically. Awarded a scholarship for 4 weeks at Camp Spring Creek, he received one-on-one attention from trained Orton Gillingham tutors, improving his reading abilities by two grade levels. The next fall, Ben made the A-B Honor Roll. Now, Ben wants to pay it forward by sending a friend, who is also dyslexic, to camp. He’s raising funds, despite the fact that returning to camp himself is beyond his family’s reach. Camp Spring Creek’s goal is to compliment Ben’s local efforts by casting a wider net online, reaching generous donors like you. Camp is also matching dollars that are donated, so only half the tuition is needed to send just 1 child. Can you help? Donate online and share the post right here.

Summer 2015 Registration Updates

We’re thrilled that we already have 25 campers registered for the first session of camp, and 28 campers registered for the second session. The way the bunks, staffing, and numbers all work out, this translates to 5 open spaces for first session, and 2 open spaces for the second session (just about). If you or someone you know is a good match for Camp Spring Creek, please visit our admissions page, which will inform you about the application and tuition process. Meantime, feel free to reminisce with us by viewing this “opening day” video from a few summers ago:

“Teaching Children to Read” by Ted Hirsch

We recently came across the text for “Teaching Kids to Read” by Ted Hirsch and were moved to share an excerpt with our readers. In depth, passionate, and precise, this essay offers the former principal of South Shore Charter School’s insights after many years as a teacher, administrator, and advocate for all kinds of learning in Massachusetts. Diagnosed with dyslexia, Hirsh appears to have had a particular interest in formulating a curriculum at his school that worked for children of all learning styles and abilities.

Here’s an excerpt from Hirsch’s chapter called “Benchmarks,” which we found unique and specific:

There are well-documented statistics showing huge discrepancies in the amount of time students spend reading. The publicly stated goal of having every child be an independent reader by the end of third grade is any elementary school’s most important job. Without this independence, children will not read enough to acquire the vocabulary necessary for sophisticated discourse. Listed below are a set of benchmarks children need to meet to attain reading independence by the end of third grade.

Kindergarten

To be able to auditorily blend and segment three-sound words and nonsense syllables. To know the sound/symbol correspondences for the five short vowels.

To know the sound/symbol correspondences for all single letter consonants except for “q” and “y.”

First Grade

To be able to auditorily blend and segment two- and three-syllable words and nonsense syllables.

To correctly hear and transcribe all of the basic code.

To know the sound/symbol correspondences for all digraphs.

To know the sound/symbol correspondences for e-controlled vowels. To correctly form all twenty-six letters.

To be able to read books of the level of the Little Bear series.

Second Grade

To be able to auditorily blend and segment a seven-word sentence.

To be able to distinguish all the phonemes of English and make correct transcriptions. To take dictation of any material from the basic code and punctuate it accurately.

To know the rules for the soft “c” and soft “g.”

To know the rule of doubling the consonant after the short vowels when adding suffixes. To spell regular past tense verbs.

To read aloud fluently and for understanding, making pauses and voice modulations which demonstrate the understanding of punctuation.

To be able to sub-vocalize when reading.

To be able to read books at the level of Tales That Julia Tells.

Third Grade

To understand and use the combinational and generative nature of words (root words, prefixes, suffixes).

To take dictation of seven-word sentences (with words from the truly English layer of the language, thus excluding words of Latin and Greek or other foreign language derivation that do not take on typical English endings).

To be able to read books like Stuart Little by E. B. White or Ramona by Beverly Cleary. To read text orally, with the rhythm of speech.

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