Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Where Have I Been and Where Am I Going?

Yes, it is me - Susan Slocum Dyer.  I am finally making a post here at my blog, The Moveable Alphabet.  I have been busy. Very busy.  I moved back to Alaska a year ago this August 1st. I accepted a position with the Annette Island School District in Metlakatla, Alaska, a Federal Reserve located on a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean.

I was hired to work as a Public Montessori Pre-School/ Kindergarten teacher (my students were aged 3 to almost 7 years) in the R.J. Elementary School. The school received a large grant to bring Montessori to the district; a district which is part of the Alaska Public Schools. So, in fact, I worked and still work for the State of Alaska.

Initially, I found it very challenging to weave together public testing (AIMSweb), running records, formative / performative / summative assessments for my lesson plans and Montessori methodology. Too, I had to study and sit for the PRAXIS I Reading Test, Writing Test and Math Test - separate tests based on public school content. In addition, I had to pass the PRAXIS II Content Exam - Early Elementary Education : Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment. Also, I had to apply and be accepted into an MAT (Masters in Education Program) - which I did, and was accepted into the University of Alaska Southeast's program this past January, 2016.

As a distance learner, I completed a full time load of preliminary courses for the Fall Semester of 2015 and the Spring Semester of 2016 (while teaching full time). I learned so much this past year and I cried much also. It was so challenging and so rewarding. My students were all Tsimshian natives. My memories from that classroom community will remain with me for the rest of my life. I still have so much to reflect upon and write about. I have several posts to add here about that experience and hope to began doing that soon.

Metlakatla, Alaska

 Metalkatla, AK is located on a small island in the Pacific Ocean. 

 Above: This beach was just down from the house I rented.


 Photo of me above: I often took  a float plane to get to Ketchikan to do my shopping or to get outside of Alaska via the international airport located there. 

Above: My good friend Jennifer, a Tsimshian native, who taught right across the hall from me. She is a Public School teacher who became a Montessori teacher - a Public Montessori teacher. We were both changing and evolving our teaching methods simultaneously. She helped me greatly and I hope I helped her. She belongs to a Tsimshian tribal dance group which performs locally and internationally.

Now, I am preparing for my next position with the State of Alaska. I have been hired as a kindergarten teacher for the North Slope Borough School District in Barrow, Alaska - the top of the world. It is hundreds of miles above the Arctic Circle.

Barrow, Alaska
Where I have been and where I am going - 

Above image: 
Barrow is located at the farthest point North and Metlakatla is pretty much the farthest point South in Alaska.  In the photo/map on the right above, Metlakatla is the small, nameless island south / below Ketchikan, which is located in Southeast Region of Alaska. Barrow is located in the Far North region.


Above: Fred Ipalook Elementary School in Barrow, where I will work starting August 1, 2016.

 The above photo: This is a photo of the tribal practice of the blanket toss that continues to this day. I hope I get to experience it!

I am nervous and excited. I have sent my crates of personal and teaching items earlier this week. I will be a kindergarten teacher; public, not Montessori. I may have 5 and 6 year olds in my class, but no 3 and 4 year olds. There is another Montessori teacher already there and she is going through all that I have begun. I have another year till I complete my Master's program and will sit for PRAXIS II exams when that concludes.

I am a teacher, like so many of you. It is an amazing adventure. There are children all over the world hoping that one of us will arrive and be their teacher.  Stay posted and I will post much more often.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015


Recently, at the Unitarian church I have started to attend, I sat in the pews and listened to a choir composed of older members sing "Imagine," John Lennon's famous song. I had not heard this song in a very long time, let alone sung live. It was an emotionally moving experience. Later that same day, I went to see Al Pacino's new movie, "Danny Collins." Fifteen minutes or so into the movie, the sound track played Lennon singing the same song. It was a beautiful coincidence. When I left the theater, I began to think about what I imagine or have imagined. My mind was quickly filled with photos I have taken and posted here. For the second time that day, I wept at the beauty of it all.

This past week, I sorted through those mental images. I remembered how often I had asked myself to "imagine" the infinite possibilities the Montessori method offers people of all ages and of diverse backgrounds. It was the act of visualizing one of these, combined with formulating a lesson, identifying the materials and then inviting a child or an elderly individual to sit and work with me (or a group of one or the other), which resulted in so much good work. It was a rare moment when someone declined. Yet, the vision of possibility was not complete until they engaged in it. They transformed it from a hope to a reality. Too, what I imagined became theirs and they made it more. Once I presented the lesson and provided the materials, I became the assistant and observer. From that place, I watched with wonderment and awe. Later, in the evening hours, I wrote about it.

Imagine toddlers given enough space to truly express themselves artistically.


 Imagine other toddlers sewing - alone and collaboratively.


Imagine children (3-6 year olds) asking if the leaves of a plant would collectively form an ellipsoid or an ovoid.

Imagine these same children designing, constructing and racing their own catamarans.

Imagine the elderly playing the Montessori bell game; quietly and carefully walking across the room and passing the bell to another.

Imagine them building with blocks that remind us Montessorians of the constructive triangles.

Imagine a child with high spectrum autism sewing a little, felt pouch.

Imagine that same child stopping on a walk to smell and feel the plants along the way. 

Four more images hover in my mind and must be shared. I watched these moments, yet they were not planned or imagined by me. They came to be because each of the individuals photographed acted independently and/or creatively within a space that provided them the opportunity to do so.

A child with high spectrum autism learning to tie her shoes for the first time.

An almost one hundred year old woman listening to music on her headphones and moving her hands as a conductor would.

A young girl in one of my Primary classrooms pulling a chair over to the open door so as to sit and watch the rain. Then leaping up with her hand outstretched hoping to catch a drop or two.

A toddler sewing with such grace and beauty as to still one's heart.

 "Everything you can imagine is real," Pablo Picasso.
I have much more to imagine...

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Toddler Room - My North Star

It was a very busy and at times hectic morning in my classroom today - 13 toddlers (4 of which are 2 sets of twins), a visiting/trying it out 16 month old child, her mother weeping in the corner of the room saying she was watching her daughter growing up so quickly, another parent who wanted to speak to me in the hall and so much more. What I do when I feel the room falling into a mildly chaotic state is look for that one child sitting quietly and engaged in focused work amid it all. That child becomes my North Star. I focus on their calm self and slowly feel that same centeredness quietly spread throughout the room. Soon a shift occurs and peace returns to the classroom - all of the children working or playing calmly. The power of one focused child...wondrous beauty. The child in the photo is pairing shoes via first measuring them on her hand. She was my North Star today.


"The child simply takes up an attitude of profound isolation, and the result is a strong peaceful character, radiating love on all around. Arising from this attitude are self sacrifice, unremitting work, obedience, and at the same time a joy in living, like a bright spring that sprang up among surrounding rocks, and is destined to help all living creatures around it. The result of concentration is an awakened social sense, and the teacher should be prepared for what follows: to these little newborn hearts she will be a creature beloved." (Dr. Maria Montessori, 'On Discipline - Reflections and Advice', AMI Communications, 1991, 4, 22)

Toddler Room - Sewing 2

I was busy helping another student sew a crooked line up a length of burlap when two other children came to me with the cardboard sewing cards I wrote about in my Sewing 1 post. As my hands were already filled, I thought that perhaps one student could hold a card while the other sewed it. I briefly put down the work I was currently engaged in assisting, reached across the table and showed the two  how to hold upright the card and, again, how to insert the lace in order to sew. I went back to helping my original student, but kept an eye on the others. I was truly amazed how quickly they were able to work as a team. They were very patient with each other. Too, they did finished the card, collaboratively. Pretty cool!

Her turn:

His turn:

Her turn:

His turn:

 “The child is capable of developing and giving us tangible proof of the possibility of a better humanity. He has shown us the true process of construction of the human being. We have seen children totally change as they acquire a love for things and as their sense of order, discipline, and self-control develops within them.... The child is both a hope and a promise for mankind.” (Maria Montessori - Education and Peace)

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Toddler Engagement in Geography, Mapping, Habitats and The Naming of Animals - Part 2

After a fleet of hooves, paws, flippers and more where stamped into salt dough, the suggestion of a landscape with mountains and valleys emerged in the work. I had started with the intention of introducing the continent Antarctica to my students, instead the focus shifted to an unnamed land that we defined by its white (ice or snow) color and the animals which inhabited it.

In this way the work took on similarities of how the grammar material is presented in the Primary classrooms. We present a red circle for the verb and say that it is like the sun as it radiates energy. Words that have the red circle symbol above them in the sentence analysis work are "action" words. The word "verb" is not introduced until the children are in Elementary 1. They understand how it's used and identify words that are that, yet the child does not name/label it verb.

This is how my work attempting to present the continents to the toddlers is beginning to be shaped. They know the color the continent is identified with (white), they know a specific group of animals are only used on the white landscape and they can name those animals.

They have also begun to create habitats for those animals to occupy.  I had purchased some furniture from Ikea and noticed that their white packing materials would make excellent caves. This is what it was used for. They were placed on table length sheets of paper and flour was dusted over them to simulate snow. I drew blue lines and arches here and there to create a suggestion of borders and waterways.

They moved around it selecting an animal or two which they then placed and positioned here and there.

The children were very quiet while they worked. Nap time was just coming to an end. A student would rise from their cot, put their shoes on and then come to the table. Within seconds they were using the materials.

One student slowly lowered her face into a pile of flour "snow." Yes, her face. She raised her flour covered face, smiled and for a moment I imagined an arctic fox sitting there looking at me. It was so wonderful.

This work is also the first introduction to prepositions - inside, outside, above, below, etc.

Then, in conjunction with this continent work, I started to pool together animals for comparative use. A pig and a warthog share the same snout. Pigs and cows both have utters. An ermine and a harbor seal have similar faces. A wolverine and a wolf, although from two distinctly different taxonomic groups, share the same-type padded paw with five toes - as my student below joyfully discovered.

The children were fascinated by the details of each creature. They showed great interest when I demonstrated to them that both the cow and the warthog have split hooves.

Collectively, we made so many discoveries.

In the back of my mind, during all of the work, I also knew that language acquisition was one of the cornerstone elements of all the work in the toddler environment. I needed to listen to my students and to hear them vocalize words newly added to their vocabulary. I will always remember the day, only a few weeks after we had first begun this work, I heard one of my students, who was working with the salt dough, excitedly declare, "Baboon! Baboon!"

Hearing that child call out, "Baboon" confirmed this was the right, age appropriate work for them and it invited me to think about what else could be added. Next, I brought in a racoon to pair with baboon so as to highlight the oo sound. We started beating out the sounds - two beats for both baboon and racoon, one for both cow and pig. This continues to evolve.


My thoughts returned to my initial goal - to teach continent work to toddlers. My next thought was flags! I could give an introductory lesson on flag making. After the children made them, they could temporarily anchor them into a salt dough hillside or island before taking them home. It worked out so well. The children eagerly engaged this work, too.

Days later one of my older boys (2.5 years) was looking out a window in our classroom and started pointing. He called me over to him and said, "Flag. Flag." He was pointing to an American flag hanging on a pole in front of the senior center next door.

I excused myself and went to one of the Primary classrooms where I borrowed an American flag. I gave it to the observing child, who was still standing at the window, providing him the opportunity to wave it slightly and have a more tactile experience with it. It was a great moment. Again, I knew all of it -  the work with animals, the landscape work, the making of flags - was/is the Toddler Continent Work. Yes, I capitalized it as it is just that cool!