by Letty Rising
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Jess Gagne has worked with children of almost all ages in a variety of settings to facilitate holistic growth and the building of a strong and supportive school community. After graduating from the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education with her B.S. in Elementary Education and her M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction, she completed her AMI Elementary Diploma at Montessori Northwest.
She loves learning and reading both in and outside of the classroom, and finds inspiration in music, yoga, the outdoors, and great storytelling. Jess is also passionate about traveling and exploring new places and has had the privilege of international work experience in both rural Peru and London, England.
Since her academic studies have focused on engaging students in culturally responsive education, she is dedicated to challenging cultural misconceptions and promoting a deep understanding of global interdependence. As a lead elementary guide, Jess aims to cultivate an environment that inspires kindness as well as lifelong love and excitement for learning.
What have been some of your student’s favorite lessons, and why do you think they love them so much?
Jess: Sometimes when I get stuck in the classroom, I ask them for lesson requests or ask them to reflect on what their favorite lessons have been, and that lets me know what they are more drawn to. Generally, it’s science lessons!
Maybe because it’s the beginning of the year, but they love the Story of the Universe lesson, and they love the volcano follow-up, (everyone wants in!). Last June we hadn’t given the Story of the Universe in months, and when we were at the park, one of the students spontaneously called out “I am the universe!” and began telling the story in a fun sort of way. There’s something they connect with in those great stories…maybe it’s the storytelling, or the follow-up work and the fact that it’s hands-on.
They also love botany lessons! I love botany, and I think that one of the reasons why it gets so popular is that I get so excited about it. They love seeing the stomata under the microscope, they love dissecting flowers, the food factory lesson, and talking about molecular structure. I think they feel very respected by that content. The fact that we are sharing that kind of high-level science knowledge with them, and they are real scientists doing real work…it feels really important to them. When I was their age I was also dissecting flowers in my grandmother’s backyard, but no one was telling me about the names, the functions, or the parts, and bringing it into the classroom is something I was encouraged to do. Honoring that natural drive for exploration in the real world, the connection to the real world, and doing so through storytelling.
Letty: Living in the cold north, do you strategize when you offer those botany lessons? When I lived in California you could pick leaves and flowers all the time, but that isn’t the case where you currently live.
Jess: For the past 2 years we started botany in the spring, which has been really exciting. We walked to Brooklyn Bridge Park for recess, and it’s so exciting to look for crocuses and know it’s the first sign of spring. The children love to be on the lookout for those signs. We were so into flower dissection, studying seeds, and classification and that ran all the way to the last day of school. We were doing really serious botany work until we couldn’t do it anymore.
Are there any particular kinds of follow-up work your students especially enjoyed?
Jess: As I mentioned, the science work. Also, in the past couple of years, they have especially loved geometry and getting creative with geometric design. I had a group of students who invented characters they called “geometric creatures” when doing geometric design in September, and all through the year they integrated these characters into their lessons up to the Pythagorean Theorem lesson. They incorporated these characters into a book series, they created a writing series for TV shows, they created posters, and they had a theme song. They were inspired by any sort of geometry because it was connected to this world-building that they were engaged in.
Another thing they really loved was writing books collaboratively. They discovered on google docs that they could ask for feedback, give suggestions, either suggest or reject them, and talk about their writing in general. I didn’t even give those lessons, they discovered how to do this on their own. It started with writing stories together as a class (chapter books). We revere the creative process for writing books. I would have them do a book plan, like storyboarding. They could do one page at a time, making it beautiful, and elevating the work that way. They also wrote a class book of fables. They love building models, dioramas, and anything that ends in a presentation!
Letty: Sounds like you have a portfolio of models or exemplars.
Jess: Yes, I have a student work sample binder. Sometimes someone is stumped about what to do for follow-up work, or they want to see an example of something someone else has done. We have lots of models, including models on what portfolio work should look like. If you want to make a version for your portfolio, you are going to make the title colorful, incorporate definitions, label everything, make a border, and make it beautiful. We have lots of models in the classroom.
Letty: Sometimes when you invite the children to do a follow-up, the children wonder “What does that look like? Where do I start?” Sometimes children have a clear vision, but sometimes children are still trying to figure out what’s possible. It’s great that you have a 3-ring binder with lots of samples placed in sheet protectors, and they can look through the binder for inspiration.
How do you help children new to Montessori develop independence in the first weeks?
Jess: It’s still a work in progress for us. We had a stretch of 5-6 months that we had a new student every week, and it was never planned, always a surprise. When they don’t have Montessori experience, we return to discussing our routines and procedures, and classroom commitments. It’s a great refresh. This relates to having models in the classroom. They might not know all the directions they can take with their follow-up work. If they are upper elementary and have a lesson on fractions when we ask “how do you want to follow up?” they immediately think “So what page do I turn to in the textbook?” but we don’t have a textbook. It can be really helpful for them to see models from former students or teacher-created models. It can help them to be paired with an older or more experienced child who is creative and excited about follow-up work and has lots of ideas. They might want to write a play, and be a casting director. These pairings work very well, then they think they have an instant friend because they have been working together on something important.
With younger children, we help them plan every morning. When they are making their work plan, we don’t just give them that responsibility and throw them in the deep end right away. We help them plan. They may have more conferences than the average student in the week, to talk about how they think their work is going, whether they are staying on top of their goals, and things like that.
Letty: To paraphrase, the things that you find that your new students need are:
- More time for planning with you (their guide)
- More individualized conference time during the week
- Gathering everyone together to revisit systems and agreements
- Building connections with other children in the classroom
- Offering them models of what’s possible
Can you think of any systems/processes that have been game-changers?
Jess: Anything that gives the children more responsibility and ownership over their environment. As adults, we want to micromanage things. Children want responsibility as well, which drives them to be their best selves. Helps them want to keep their environment as a place they want to be with every day. For the longest time, we had free snack between this time and this time. We had a designated snack table, and asked the children the following:
- What are the guidelines around the snack table?
- How long do we want someone to sit for a snack?
- How do we want to decide (when their time is up)?
We all made a poster of the guidelines and worked really well.
Letty: Sometimes having them develop the systems means less work for us, and they come up with a lot better ideas than we do.
Jess: Another system that comes to mind is something I borrowed from my former colleague Celine. She went around with a container and said “The bin monster is coming for everything that didn’t get cleaned up.” I told my upper el students, and they loved that idea, so we got giant googly eyes and hot glued them onto a bin, and it’s somebody’s job at the end of the day to collect stray items. There’s an expectation that everything has been put away. There shouldn’t be pencils or work out. They put things in the bin. In the morning, the person who left it out could do some community service (deep cleaning grammar boxes, helping Children’s House, wiping down the microwave) in order to earn those items back for the classroom.
It was a huge game changer, especially last year when students were having a hard time developing empathy for others around them. All of a sudden, when we offered community service those students were first to volunteer and would engage in community service enthusiastically, and when it was time to get something out of the bin, they wouldn’t choose their own, but someone else’s items. I think they really loved the feedback they got because it was genuine. Sometimes it was my things that they retrieved from the bin! If someone’s indoor shoes ended up in the bin, and they’re really busy that morning, a friend might say “I got your indoor shoes out of the bin!” Then the other child would be like “oh, thank you!”
If you could go back and talk to your new teacher self, what advice would you give to yourself?
Jess: I was recently looking through my portfolio when graduating from my teaching program. I had a lot of practical experience but was in my head with the theory, and concerned about doing everything by the book. The main thing I would tell myself is to slow down a little bit, breathe, observe, and see how students are interacting with the lessons, the environment, and the materials.
I would tell myself to be patient. I was always very concerned about hitting a certain milestone every semester or month. I’ve now seen the value of patience, recognizing that “this child isn’t ready, but they will get there on their own time.” Often they go through that explosion of growth that happens all at once when they are ready, and it pays off that you were patient because it is so much more meaningful for them to be actually experiencing that growth and development when they are ready rather than being forced.
Letty: I love what you are saying! Growth doesn’t happen on someone else’s timetable, but as a society, we have expectations about that timetable being in place and people meeting that timetable. Some people will, but left to their own devices might go faster or slower, or all different rates.
Jess: This is my favorite thing about the Montessori method in general. This is my first experience in a 6-12 classroom and it’s really solidified that concept when seeing these children have the freedom to be here from first to 6th grade. They feel safe and feel like it’s really about them growing and learning, and about their development and self-construction, and not about a pre-prescribed path they’re on. We see children able to move faster, and that brings them a lot of pride, too.
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several pubic and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. She currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.