It’s a mystery

It is a mystery to my family why I keep making things for fundraisers, for students, and for fellow teachers…but it is not a mystery to me. These days so many items that surround us are electronic and mass-produced and it is a pleasure to have hand-made items crafted with natural materials. But why do I make so many things? Easy to answer…it makes me very happy to give them away! In some cases I have to sell them (just to be able to replenish my reserves of fabric, thread and yarn…).

This week, I delivered 18 mystery bags to the students at the Foundation for Montessori Education. This institution is where I completed my training as a Montessori Teacher in 2004. The school is AMI accredited (the true Montessori brand) and it is a top-notch program that makes the students work themselves to the bone for 9 months learning about children and how they develop and learn. In all of my years and 3 university degrees, I have never come close to working as hard as I did that year. Truth be told, I had also never been inspired to work so hard or enjoyed any endeavour so much. This year’s students are a lovely group and it was a treat to spend a bit of time with them. Here are the choices they made for fabrics for their various mystery bags….


Are you wondering what these bags are for? In a Montessori classroom, the mystery bag contains items that the children are familiar with. The bag is taken to a table, and the child puts his/her hand in, grasps an object and names it before removing the object from the bag. All of the items are lined up from left to right across the table. It is one of the most amazing sights to see the delight on the child’s face when completing this activity.


This year, I have very young students – ages 2-3 1/2 – and we have not tried this activity yet. Today, however, with my newly-made mystery bag, I think I will show the eldest one. She is ready, and I know I am looking forward to it…


P.S. Today I receive my third university degree, my Masters of Education from OISE. It ranks second in learning and enjoyment, behind my AMI Montessori diploma, and miles ahead of my BA and MA in economics!


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Lightest Pumpkin Cheesecake Ever

This recipe has been tested and tweaked three times and the consensus is – this one is just right. It is a cross between a pumpkin pie (spicy and not too sweet) and a cheesecake (graham crust and tangy taste of cream cheese). The egg white on the graham crust keeps it slightly crunchy and the walnut and honey topping adds a decadent touch to this very light dessert.

Image 1

Graham crust:

1 cup graham cracker crumbs

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

3 tbsp melted margarine

1 egg white, beaten

1. In a medium bowl, prepare crust:

  • Combine crumbs, sugar and melted margarine and mix well.
  • Press into an 9-inch ungreased springform pan, pressing crust down firmly with the back of a spoon.
  • Bake at 325 degrees for 10 minutes.
  • Remove from oven and brush with about half of the egg white.
  • Return to the oven and bake for 5 more minutes.


1 pkg light cream cheese (250g)

3 eggs, one at a time

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 1/2 cups canned pumpkin

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp ginger

1/8 tsp salt

1/2 cup light (0-2%) sour cream

2. In a large bowl, prepare filling:

  • With electric mixer, beat cream cheese until light and fluffy.
  • Add eggs one at a time, beating well.
  • Add sugar and beat well.
  • Add remaining ingredients, mixing well.
  • Pour filling into cooked pie crust, spreading filling evenly.

3. Bake pie:

  • Bake at 325 degrees for 35 minutes.
  • Turn the oven off and leave the cheesecake in for 10 minutes.
  • Cheesecake is done when the edges look cooked and the centre jiggles slightly.

4. Topping: optional

Nutmeg, 1/4 cup liquid honey, 1/2 cup chopped walnuts

  • Sprinkle cheesecake lightly with nutmeg
  • Chop walnuts and roast on ungreased pan at 350 degrees for 5-10 minutes.
  • Heat honey in microwave, then stir in roasted walnuts.
  • Spread onto cooked cheesecake, making sure to cover any cracks…



  • Pie is best prepared ahead and chilled.
  • Much lighter than a traditional cheesecake.
  • Lightly spiced and not too sweet. For a sweeter cheesecake, increase sugar to 2/3 cup.

Hope you try it and let me know if you like it…


Here is a pdf of the recipe:

Lightest Pumpkin Cheesecake Ever

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Making counting more fun

As usually happens, whenever I have an assignment due at OISE, it feels like a good time to make another post. Perhaps because I am drowning in papers and ideas I don’t fully understand (yet), it is satisfying to post about something I actually know something about!

Over the past two years, I have been making and using counting strings in the classroom with children ages 2-6. Even though Montessori classrooms have an abundance of hands-on mathematics materials, there was something lacking for the young children learning to count. Counting is more than reciting the string of numbers. Children need to have a concept of quantity and need to be able to make the one-to-one correspondence between the number they say and the object they are counting.


To bridge this gap, I borrowed a tool from the golf world – a stroke counter. Thankfully my golf came has improved since my teenage years, when a stroke counter with 10 beads would have come in quite handy on virtually every hole!


Why do we need an aid for children learning to count? English has irregular patterns in numbers for the teens, and for 20, 30, and 50.  Unlike in many Asian languages, which would use ten-three for 13, and two-tens for twenty, we have to learn new words. Practice with these numbers is required to build fluency and accuracy in counting. The reason the strings I make go up to 50 is that after 50, all of the number patterns are regular – sixty, seventy, eighty and ninety are all predictable.


The number strings I make for the children are simple, and embody the following characteristics:

  • beads are attached to the string and are slid along as they are counted
  • each decade (set of ten beads) is of one colour
  • colours adjacent to each other are contrasting
  • string for very young children has 10 beads
  • string for children ages 2-3 has 20 beads
  • string for children ages 3-6 has 50 beads

When the children are in class with me, I get them to choose the colours of the beads we use and count out 10 of each. When the string is completed, I show the child how to count along the string, then have the child count and slide each bead along as he/she counts. I make a note about the child’s progress and/or which numbers require prompts. That day, the child takes the counting string home to keep. Quite often, I make a 20-bead string and the child counts so well that we progress to a 50-bead string very quickly.

So, how do you make one?

To make a 20-bead string:

  • Select 10 beads each of 2 contrasting colours.
  • Cut a piece of string about 3 feet long.
  • Fold the string in half and tie a knot 2 inches from the fold.
  • Use a bit of glue on each end of the string to make the end stiff.
  • Slide each end into opposite sides of one bead, then slide the bead along to the knot.
  • Add the next bead in the same way, sliding it down next to the previous bead.
  • When all the beads are added, make a knot about 1 1/2 inches away from the final bead.
  • Trim the ends of the string to about 1/2 to 1 inch away from the final knot.

IMG_0668I have shared these strings and ideas with Kindergarten teachers – and they have found them useful in the classroom.  Let me know if you find that they work.

Teri Courchene

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Tutoring works!

This year has been the first time I have tried weekly tutoring with kids in addition to teaching classes of young children.

Why is tutoring so rewarding?

  • I can build a strong cooperative relationship with the child.
  • Our time together is a respite – a quiet time in a supportive environment.
  • I can target the work to meet exactly what the child needs – whether it is blending sounds for an early reader or understanding the relationship between fractions and percentages – using hands-on materials wherever possible.
  • As the child develops proficiency at his/her work, his/her confidence grows.
  • With greater confidence, we can venture into new areas of learning.
  • Every once in a while, I take a minute and show the child the things that he/she can do well – too many people have usually told the child what he/she does not do well…
  • Don’t tell the older kids, but the younger ones get some time to choose what they want to do in the classroom…making it more interesting.
  • So far, the children and I are enjoying ourselves…and both of us are learning…which is why tutoring is becoming my main line of work.

Teri Courchene


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Learning disabilities in young children

First of all, let me say that OISE should revoke Chris Spence’s PhD degree in light of the revelations of plagiarism in his PhD thesis (and throughout his career…). On behalf of fellow students at OISE who actually do their own work, it will be a disgrace if his degree is not revoked.

Moving right along…I want to start a discussion about learning disabilities. At the moment, I am taking a course in learning disabilities at OISE. Our prof, Todd Cunningham, has a learning disability himself and not only does he give us a first hand understanding of his struggles, but he entertains us with the humorous take on some aspects of his learning disability (such as how his limited working memory works against him in arguments with his wife!).

At the outset of the course, we began to discuss definitions and assessment. Straightforward, you might think. Not so. Living in Ontario and exposed to the province’s policy of defining a learning disability as a (1.5 to 2.0 standard deviation) gap between potential/IQ and and achievement, it was a shock to learn that most other provinces do not have as strict a definition. The trend across the country (in line with recent research findings) is to shift to a model of academic and functional deficits as a way to determine whether students should receive additional support.

Why does the definition matter? Being diagnosed with a learning disability (LD) could have a negative side effect if the child feels stigmatized in some way. On the positive side, however, what the diagnosis does mean is that the child receives the needed support within the public school system, including an IEP (individual education plan), and accommodations and supports such as extra time on tests, one-on-one reading assistance, or assistive technology. Having students who are lagging behind yet do not qualify for support because their “gap” is not large enough does not appear to make sense from the point of view of the struggling student.

Taking reading as an example, it has been shown that children lagging behind in reading skills during the early years follow exactly the same learning pathway whether they have a learning disability or whether they are just slow at learning to read. This finding, plus other research in the same vein, is a reason for broadening the definition of learning disabilities to one proposed by the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada. This definition is not limited to but includes the following component:

“Learning disabilities are suggested by unexpected academic under-achievement or achievement which is maintained only by unusually high levels of effort and support.” (Kozey & Siegel, 2008, p. 163)

So, what do we do? Offering help to children during the early years, as early as kindergarten, has been shown to be extremely beneficial and in some cases, to remove the learning obstacle entirely. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans show that early intervention has been successful in improving the functioning of the affected areas of the brain – a permanent improvement. At the present time, Ontario schools rarely test for learning disabilities before grade 3.

More to come on what teachers can do…

Kozey, M. & Siegel, L.S. (2008). Definitions of learning disabilities in Canadian provinces and territories. Canadian Psychology, 49, 162-171.



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The marshmallow test

There are so many reasons to bake with the children in my school and the least of them is to have something yummy for snack! (We don’t bake with marshmallows, but be patient, we will get to the marshmallows later…)

Not only do children get the enjoyment of creating something, they also learn about the steps in baking, the ingredients and the measures (1 cup versus 1 teaspoon, etc.). Here are some other things the children learn and do:

  • There is a bowl for the dry ingredients and the wet ingredients.
  • You can make a sandcastle with the brown sugar but not the white sugar.
  • Vanilla smells wonderful but tastes awful.
  • If you put each ingredient away after it is added, you will keep track of what you have already added to the mix.
  • The children also get the practice of stirring all of the ingredients, whether it is slowly for the dry ingredients, or vigorously for the margarine/sugar/egg batter.
  • The children take turns adding ingredients and stirring the batter. We always go clockwise around the work surface.
  • If batter gets on their fingers – no licking! They have to wash their hands.

The most important lesson in baking, I believe, is self-regulation – one of the hottest topics in education these days. What is self-regulation? The ability to inhibit movement when needed, wait one’s turn, make decisions on one’s own, act when appropriate – in a nutshell, to be able to regulate one’s own behaviour appropriately.

OK – so you have been patiently waiting to hear about the marshmallows…

The Stanford marshmallow experiment, introduced in the late 1960’s, is a test devised to see if children can delay gratification. In a test situation, a child is given one marshmallow and told that he/she can either have this one now, or wait and get two when the researcher returns to the room 20 minutes later. The researcher leaves the room and watches to see whether the child eats the marshmallow or waits and receives a second marshmallow. It is proposed that whether the child has enough self control to wait for the second marshmallow is a good predictor of future academic achievement and success in adult life. An interesting article on this in The New Yorker:

For a child, waiting his or her turn or inhibiting movement (no jumping around, sticking one’s hand in the bowl to test the batter, etc.) are very hard to do – believe me! The children in my school – ages 2 1/2 to 6 – are wonderful at this, even if they don’t do this at home!

And, at the end, our patience is rewarded with fresh, yummy cookies or muffins. Well worth the wait.

For all of our recipes, go to the Recipes page of this blog.


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Addition with Dice

This is an interesting way for children to become familiar with addition. All of the children here enjoy it. Even when children have not quite mastered writing numbers to 10, they ask if they can do this. We use our grid paper and the child writes out the equation, then counts up the dots and writes the answer.

The ability to recognize that 5 dots represents 5 is called subitizing. Children learn to subitize in various ways – sometimes by playing lots of board games. I find that children these days are less used to dice, so this game is a bit of a novelty for them.

Children fill up one side of the grid paper – 10 equations. I would not check the answers for this type of work since it is the process that is the most important.

As with all of the other things in the classroom, the activity is attractive and appealing to the child. By having a basket to roll the dice in, the work remains in a defined area and the child can always see what he/she has rolled. For this work, I like to use two different colours for the two dice, as I think it makes it a little easier for the child to see which one he/she has already counted.

Readers – please weigh in on this and any other topic. I would love to hear your comments!


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