Doug Fisher on Maria Montessori and Working on Dreams

Noodle Expert Doug Fisher explains how he bounced back after failing algebra in high school, how Maria Montessori's work still influences his classrooms today, and why dreams don't work unless you do.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

I think I'd pick Maria Montessori. I learned a little about her while in school, and was amazed to learn that she was among the first to think that classroom furniture should be scaled to the size of children. Now we take that for granted. I've been working on classroom re-designs with very different arrangements. I'm interested in creating an environment — suited to the teacher personality — that is not simply rows and columns of chairs. I like stages, runways, physioballs, bleachers, ramps, standing tables, and all kinds of different features in the classroom.

Montessori also had ideas about developing curricula along a developmental path, and I'd like to re-visit that with her as my guide. In our standards-based world, which I support, I think we need to consider developmentally-appropriate tasks as well. I'd like to learn more about development vis-a-vis high expectations.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

Dreams don't work unless you do. I believe that everyone has a dream; sometimes we're public about those dreams and sometimes we are not, but they are there nonetheless. A friend of mine gave me the book "The Dream Manager" by Matthew Kelly, which profiles a company that hires a "dream manager" to support workers. Their dreams are big and small, and the people profiled needed guidance and accountability to reach them. I know that our students have dreams and that educators (and parents) can serve as effective dream managers. It's about building aspirations, then helping students do the work required of them to realize their dreams. At our school, we say "What do you want to be?" and "Who do you want to be?" as a way of having these conversations with students.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

There are simply too many possible answers. My first instinct was to choose a place that required a passport because I think international travel is powerful and provides a window into a life different from one's own. Then I thought about the amazing places that the US has to offer. The first time I traveled away from home was in fourth grade. My class visited the California's capital, Sacramento. It was an amazing experience, and I got to meet people with very different backgrounds and experiences (not to mention jobs) from those people around me. I also got to fly for the first time and I loved it.

I would ask the student what he or she wanted to see or learn and then I would make recommendations based on my experiences to help that person select a worthwhile experience.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

I failed algebra in ninth grade. I took notes dutifully each day and worked on homework with my friend Robb. Sometimes he told me how to do the individual problems and other times he told me the answers, but my homework was always done. I just failed every test. My teacher explained concepts and then assigned us problems to complete. There wasn't sufficient scaffolding, checking for understanding, or needs-based instruction for me to be successful. Based upon that failure, I made a commitment to implement more robust and comprehensive instruction. I don't just tell students what to do or think, but rather guide their experiences, providing opportunities for them to collaborate and interact with one another and with me.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I became an educator to change the world. I was clear about this from an early age. I understood the power of teachers and the ways in which they shaped children's thinking. One of my teachers in elementary school read the book "The Children's Story" by James Clavell to us. It shocked me — the teacher could accomplish so much (in that case it was negative) and I knew I could do the same thing in a positive way. Teaching has been what I expected: a wonderful opportunity to guide students' aspirations and their understanding of the world. It's an amazing profession, filled with dedicated and honorable individuals who work endlessly to improve the lives of other people's children. The difference is how I spend my time. I never thought I'd run a school or work at a university, but I do. I never thought I'd be a writer, but I am. And I never thought I would travel and share my understanding of education with others, but I do. All of this is because of my teachers and I'm proud to be one.

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