Introducing: Mr. Chris Weber

There is no doubt that teachers are our biggest asset in the Montessori Program in New West. We absolutely love these remarkable people that take care of our kids everyday and make them better, smarter, kinder. That’s why we want the community to get to know our teachers better and we’ve started a new projectinterviews with Montessori teachers of New Westminster schools. Today, we would like to present the first interview with one of New West teachersChris Weber, who is Grade 5-6 teacher in the Montessori Program at Lord Tweedsmuir Elementary.

 

Mr. Weber, you are known and respected within our community as a very talented teacher. It is always interesting to learn how people end up in their career. I amwondering how you first became interested in Montessori education and teaching in general?

I’ve always been interested in teaching. I used to teach swimming lessons—I did that for about 8 years before I started teaching [school]. I’ve always loved it—I loved working with kids but I hated getting wet (laughs). So I thought “This is going to be perfect—I’ll be a teacher in a classroom!” As for Montessori, who really got me interested in it was Jessica Seens [currently teaching Montessori at Connaught Heights Elementary]. Her and I would ride a bus together quite a bit when we first started teaching. I was teaching a grade 4 and 5 regular program class and we’d always talk about the things that we were doing in the classroom. She just kept saying: “Jeez, everything you do sounds very Montessori! Have you checked into the program? Do you know the philosophy?” She got me really thinking that I should look into this. So I started reading more about Maria Montessori and what she was doing with her students—how many years ago, a hundred years (laughs)?

But what really got me interested was knowing that there was going to be an opening here in the program, and I’m like: “Man, I really like the philosophy. I’m going to check out a couple of summer courses.” So I enrolled into a regular introductory Montessori course through a Langley school and then I took the language course as well because I really liked the concept. Then  I applied for the job! I felt that this was the way I wanted to go—I really like the hands-on opportunities that the kids get and I like all the projects that the older kids get to do.

So, I got in, I got the job! I got to work with Colleen Patrick who used to be a teacher here in the district and she was a phenomenal mentor. She taught me a ton of stuff. She was on maternity leave for the first half of the year and then came back to work two days a week. I got to work with her while she was here and I learned a lot about the math manipulatives. It was just a wonderful opportunity and I’ve stuck with it—I really enjoy working with the kids in the program.

 

Working with grades 5 and 6, what do you find most challenging and most rewarding?

All of this, to be honest (laughs)! The most challenging part…nothing (smiles).

 

You love it so much?

Yeah! I mean they are going through so many changes in grade 5-6, so puberty obviously is a struggle, right? You are dealing with all the changes in their growth cycle but I think that’s the hardest part.

“I just deal with things right away as they happen—I don’t push them off and say ‘Oh, we’ll talk about it later’.”

 

How do you cope with all of those pre-teen/teen changes?

I’m just open and honest with them—we talk about it. We have regular morning meetings and we talk about the things that are bothering them, about what’s going well and what isn’t going well. And I just deal with things right away as they happen—I don’t push them off and say “Oh, we’ll talk about it later”. I think that the kids really respect that. And with me respecting them that way, they are generally quite respectful in return. We are a really good community. We have the morning homework club from 8:30–9, so they are welcome to just pop in before school—most of them are coming because they want to talk.

 

That’s great! It is very important to have people you can talk to at that age. And coming back to the question, what is most rewarding?

I think the most rewarding is seeing the growth over the course of the years. Especially with the kids I’ve had since grade 4—I’m seeing the changes that they would go through from grade 4 to grade 6. And I call them the “light bulb moments”, where you know they’ve been struggling with something for maybe grade 4 and 5, and then all of a sudden, in grade 6 they get it—those moments are the most rewarding. You know they've struggled with something, they pushed through and really get it.

 

How would you describe the Montessori Program to a person who is completely unaware of the method? Like an elevator pitch?

I get asked that all the time and struggle with it (laughs)! I think it’s an experiential program. We don’t just teach in front of the whole class—kids ‘experience’ things and they ‘work with’ things—we have hands-on materials for almost everything. So, with math, if they don’t grasp a concept right away, we have materials that we pull out that we’ll use. With social studies we won’t just look at a piece of paper with a timeline on it—we are going to develop that timeline or we are going to place things on the timeline and really get an idea of what was happening around whatever period in time we're looking at. We do science experiments—I know the regular program does this stuff too but I think we are just really good at it. It's very much hands-on learning—there is a lot of choice built into. I think a lot of people hear Montessori and they don't believe that there is a structure. But there is quite a big structure in the sense that we've given students assignments but over the course of the years they learn when they are best capable of doing something. They have a choice: if they are good at doing math before recess, then they would choose to do math before recess rather than write a story, which may be better for them after recess. So they still have exactly the same things due but when they do it and in what order they do it is up to them.

 

So it's the way they learn?

It is the way they learn. I find that my primary [school] colleagues do a reallygood job with helping the students figure that out. So when they get to me we do project after project and it ends up being a lot of fun and a lot of learning.

 

What are the main advantages of the Montessori program compared to the traditional program for the kids and the parents?

Just going back to the experiential learning and the inquiry that we can do within the classroom because they are such capable and interested learners. I find that, again, I have to give all the credit to my primary colleagues (laughs). They foster this love of learning in these kids that comes up to me so we can do these awesome inquiry projects—we can explore different Genius Hour ideas all built within the confines of the day. When I look at the regular program, I think that they are excellent educators as well, but I think within our Montessori philosophy we have that hands-on inquiry, like "let's really foster a love of learning in these kids". And for parents, I just think for parents knowing that the Montessori education does transfer through the grades and it does foster that love of learning, what more could parents hope for—kids who love to learn and like to learn.

 

You are teaching them to love to learn instead of just learning.

That's right! They are learning for the sake of loving it.

 

Questions are acceptable.

Well, exactly! And we encourage them—we want them to question things.

 

Could you please tell us more about your Genius Hour?

Sure! The idea or the concept behind the Genius Hour is that the kids get one hour a week to pick a passion, pick something that they always wanted to learn, and research it. When I first started doing it we did a little bit more than an hour a week because they were so into it! They wanted to really explore their topics. When kids choose their topics, choose the way they are going to learn it, and choose the way they are going to present it, you end up with amazing projects, right? That's what they are interested in. There are so many who will say "well, how did you grade it?". First of all, I didn't! Because you see the learning (laughs), you see how interested they were, and you see their output. But if you did want to grade it—their output, language art, oral presentation skills—there are so many different opportunities for grading Genius Hour.

 

 

Could you give a couple of examples of projects that they did?

Yes! I have seen a wide range [of projects]. I had one student who was interested in Easter Island and the big statue heads, so she investigated that. She made a head out of Styrofoam and then painted it. She not only learned about Easter Island but she taught herself how to carve and how to paint something.

Another girl did a big project on volcanoes. She ended up learning more than I expected her to because she learned all about plate tectonics and the way the internal structure of the Earth operates. She and her partner built a volcano and brought it in to demonstrate an eruption.

Another boy in my class decided he was going to investigate himself! He wanted to look into making sure that he was a respectful, kind individual. He looked up all these virtues and then he figured out how he could be these different virtues—what he could do within his community and at home to exhibit these virtues.

I had another boy in the classroom, he was fascinated by Marvel comics. We had a long talk about it and we decided, "why don't you research who these people are based on?" and he ended up looking at the Viking gods. From there he got into the actual Vikings and what they did throughout history! What I love about Genius Hour is the evolution of the questions—where do they take them.

One boy did his [project] on the Renaissance. He was totally interested in what was going on in Europe in the 1400s. He investigated artists, politicians, and all of the people at that time, it was really amazing. Getting the questions out of them is the hardest part. That probably took the most amount of time.

 

Is there a special thing you do with them to get these ideas out?

All I did was stand up here and we started writing down ideas. Kids were calling out ideas—some of the best ideas we get from other people. If they had a hard time picking a topic, then we explored more, really diving into what they are interested in. A boy was interested in the Titanic and he studied the Titanic a lot. He started talking about the survivors of the Titanic and he ended up doing his whole Genius Hour on what they ended up doing [afterwards]. He looked up different survivors and what they did with their lives and what we would have lost if they hadn't survived. It was pretty phenomenal.

 

This is amazing and it's great because you are not giving them the topicthey choose it.

Yes, they are choosing it. That's the powerful thing about Genius Hour—it's theirs. They own it.

 

Are you the only teacher who is doing Genius Hour?

No, there is also a regular program teacher doing it as well—it's becoming more and more popular, especially with the new BC curriculum. Inquiry is built right into the new curriculum and I think more teachers will end up doing it.

We are teaching more about navigating that type of information rather than just feeding them facts.”

 

I think that blends nicely into our next question—what future trends do you see and do you think we are preparing our kids for those trends successfully?

I think that people who are conscious of it are preparing kids. I think we have information at our fingertips and that's really changed education, right? Kids can look up whatever they want to look up. That's not what we are really teaching anymore—we are teaching about when you do look that up, what is good information and what is bad information and what do you do with it—do you understand what you are reading? We are teaching more about navigating that type of information rather than just feeding them facts. I think that if we can create lifelong learners, the ones that are curious about learning and are curious about looking up the information, that's why Genius Hour is so amazing—you create an adult who will look up that information and not go straight to one website but they'll go through a few and figure out fact from fiction.

 

Critical thinking, right?

Exactly! There is a huge debate about whether Wikipedia is a good source. Well, Wikipedia is actually a great source for some things and it's a horrible source for other things, right (laughs)? Sometimes I'll read a Wikipedia page and I'll think "I don't understand half the words that are on this page because some scholar from Harvard wrote it”. So it is great information but if I can't do anything with it then it's not great information for me. How do I move past Wikipedia? It's about being informative and conscious consumers of that information. I'm hoping that teachers are doing that in their classrooms—not just in Montessori. I think that with this new [BC] curriculum coming out it does foster a lot of that, it's just how it will be implemented that is the question.

One last thing I wanted to talk about is that you see adults changing careers so often. I think preparing kids for that through these subjects really helps as well. Having them have to change and have to be flexible, that's all really important.

One of the biggest things I think is a lot of parents and teachers fear failure. But I think in a Montessori classroom I can easily set students up to fail in a good way, to fail in a way where when something happens they can pick themselves back up and redo something in a way that they can find success in that failure. I see it with math all the time. I'll give an assessment that I know a student is going to fail. They won't know how to do it. But it builds this curiosity about "Yeah, I didn't know how to do it but now I want to." I've incorporated failure into a sense of wanting to learn this new concept and then being very successful.

 

Failing in a safe way.

Yes, exactly. Especially when they are kids—let's teach them how to fail and then how to cope with that failure and how to pick themselves up and be successful. I find the failure piece is very hard for some parents but once they realize that you know this is a safe place to failthey usually come around. I dislike the word ‘failure’ but it is the best way to describe it. It has a negative connotation but really that's how we learn.

 

And I guess this answers my question about why it is important to carry on the Montessori program into the Middle school.

Definitely.

 

Those two points play into the older years more so than the primary years. They are at a vulnerable age as wellthey are just entering puberty and that's...emotional.

Yeah, and I think that having them for grades 6, 7, and 8 is important—I especially see it vitally important for the grade 8 because they traditionally would go off to a new teacher each year and they'd be by themselves. Grade 8’s are often just grade 8’s. Whereas, when you are with the same teacher for those three years, you've built that community. You have their respect—they respect you, you respect them, and they know that, they fell that, right? When they feel respected then you get a lot of great learning out of them.

 

That goes back to your original discussion of letting them trust you.

So they can fail, yes. And when they do trust you, then they often let go of a lot of that stuff.

 

At that age I feel they need a little bit of time to build up trust and respect.

They do, yes. So to start that in Grade 6 is really important. You get them grade 6, 7 and 8, by grade 7 they trust you and by grade 8 they really trust you.

 

Then you've set them up well for high school.

Exactly. I see that as my biggest goal. My biggest goal right now is to get them ready for the regular program [in grade 7]. And I heard nothing but good things about my kids in Grade 7—I'm a proud papa (laughs)! "Your kids are doing so well!". That's awesome!

 

Would you say that would be your favourite thing about teaching?

Yeah, that's huge. Hearing about kids being successful or kids coming back from high school and telling you their stories about what they are doing and how well they are doing. Those are big, big proud moments (laughs)!

 

When was the first time you felt proud as a teacher?

This question is hard (laughs)! You know, I guess my first proud moment was when I was working at QMS teaching Grade 8 and like we talked about earlier—they don't trust. And my first month at QMS the students did everything in their power to make me want to quit and cry everyday (laughs)! I remember that first moment where someone in the class looked at another person in the class and said, "You know what guys, cut it out." And it was just "Wow! I've broken through to somebody", and then it's like dominoes falling—having them trust you and actually like you (laughs) and listen to what you have to say. That was the first one. I remember that like yesterday.

I was also going to say that every year you see it all the time when kids—again going back to one of your earlier questions—have those ‘light bulb moments’. When a kid has been struggling with something for so long, and I've been working with them, and all of a sudden s/he understands. Again, going back to the materials, if somebody struggles with fractions, I can pull out this material. If that didn't work for them, there is another one that I can pull out—there are probably 5 or 6 different sets of materials that I can pull out for practice and one of them is eventually going to get to them. It's just finding the one that breaks down the wall. And seeing those light bulbs go off! I had one boy, he's in grade 10 this year, fractions was his bane. In grade 5 he just didn't understand them at all. And then half way through Grade 6 we were talking about them again and he's like,"No. Are you serious? It's that easy? How could I not get this before—I get it!"

“Let your kids fail. Let them fail in a safe way and be there to support them, guide them through that failure. Help them cope and help them get back up and do it again. But let them fail.”

 

If you could give one piece of advice to the parents of your Montessori students, what would it be?

Let your kids fail. Let them fail in a safe way and be there to support them, guide them through that failure. Help them cope and help them get back up and do it again. But let them fail. A story that I read when I knew that Montessori was for me was about a boy in Kindergarten or Grade 1. He climbed up a ladder and he couldn't get back down. His mom knew that he couldn't get back down but she stayed at the bottom so that if something happened, she was there but she was not going to help him back down. When that boy finally built up enough courage to take the first step to come down, he made it all the way and then climbed right back up that ladder. He continued to go up and down that ladder until he mastered it. So from failure came this amazing learning experience for that boy. And any time I think about my classroom with my students I think about that story. If that kid fails, eventually they are going to figure it out and they are going to keep trying it over and over again until they are masters. And I love that about teaching. That would be my biggest advice to parents.

 

Thank you!