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Friday, October 9, 2015

Montessori Synergy

"The first aim of the prepared environment is, as far as it is possible,
 to render the growing child independent of the adult."
Maria Montessori

We are always humbled by the mystery inherent in the young child's daily choice of activities. We prepare the environment, paying attention to a thousand details, and day by day we introduce the children to a spread of activities that are suited to their age and development.  Then we step back and observe what happens.   Every day we are amazed.  Each child engages with works that have somehow attracted or drawn him in.  It could be that he just saw another child doing it, or maybe she just had a special lesson with the material, or something just caught his eye, or she's in an ongoing cycle with mastery in some area or another.  What leads a child to decide to do this or that, what guides his choices, on this day or that?  His actively learning, self-directed, absorbent mind is at the heart of it all, connected to and yet mostly independent of our adult preconceptions or plans.  

Eva got out the Constructive Cubes earlier this week, and I had the privilege of being able to sit nearby and witness her process as she used the cubes to set up each pattern card perfectly, talking herself through it step by step, completely absorbed, oblivious of all around her.  Why did she choose it that day?  I do not know, and I stand in awe of that mystery.

Maria Montessori wrote (I cannot find the quote though I tried hard this morning) that children learn more from one another than they ever do from their teachers.    This is so important to remember.  The living reality of these children, at different developmental stages, each engaging with beautiful, interesting works within sight and sound of one another, is that they become one another's teachers and role models. Whether Eva had just seen Ethan working with those cubes I do not know.  But this is the great synergy of the Montessori environment - the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and all the parts - the children - benefit from the great whole of Montessori synergy.  It's absolutely magical what they absorb from one another.

So as you read this blog,  try to view it from this perspective, not just as a glimpse of these children's activities. Imagine what is happening around and near each child, rather than just what you see each individual child doing.  I used photos from the last two weeks, and to limit my focus,  I deliberately chose one-person works, though small group activities and shared projects are also happening every hour of every day.  Imagine how all these activities work separately and together to create this dynamic environment.  The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Visualize each one of these kids as teachers and inspirations for the others. Picture your child in the midst of all this activity.  Then multiply these glimpses by the hours and days of their Chickadee lives.  We've been together only five weeks in this school year, and so much has happened already.  The children's absorbent minds are firing on all cylinders!

To begin somewhere, a moment in time, this is Lila with the Mystery Bag; she had just been given an introductory lesson.  We had taken out and named all the objects hiding in the bag. When I took this photo, she was totally focused on the experience of feeling inside the bag for the next object, without using her eyes. She didn't pay attention to anyone or anything else, but several children quietly stopped to watch her. Every child has loved this work in his time - it is eternally popular.

In the same work period, just one table away, Eleanor had proudly finished putting out the last numerals in the Hundred Board. It was her first time to make it all the way to 100. Then she asked for a worksheet so she could write some of the numbers.  You can imagine how her beaming face and the impressive lay-out affected some of her friends.

On another morning recently, Henry saw a friend working with a Pink Box, and in this case he was directly inspired to get out his own right next to her. He was on a roll. He spelled all the words with his movable alphabet, and then set himself the task of writing them down.   Imagine other children walking by during this period of concentration, their absorbent minds seeing the letters and the words and his focus.

Meanwhile, in the art area, a series of activities introducing the primary and secondary colors has been a big draw in the last two weeks. Tai carefully painted his frog with just the primary colors; notice how carefully he was working, this boy who is not yet 3 years old.  Almost everyone painted with the primary colors on one day or another, and each time, I emphasized not mixing the colors.   In the subsequent activities, they mix the primary colors, first with dropper bottles, and then with tempera paint.  It's settled down now, but for days children were watching over each other's shoulders, and eagerly waiting for their turn.
Right in the highly visible center of the big room are the Sensorial shelves, and one or more of these irreplaceable materials are in almost constant use. On this day I gave Keitra the introductory lesson to the Geometric Cabinet - I showed her the frames and insets with square, triangle, and circle. She tried out tracing the edges of the shapes with her fingers, and she was adept at placing them back in their frames.  She went on to try two more drawers on that and following days.     

My visible hand in the photo gives away that this is another lesson, actually a re-presentation of the Binomial Cube.  Sydney hadn't worked with it since last spring, so it was good to review.  As soon as I could, my hands moved to my lap, and I sat there quietly observing her as she figured it out, and then repeated the puzzle again.  Even in our lessons, we give the child as much independence as possible, because that is where they reveal themselves to us.  We also claim and protect the special space of a lesson, and the children are learning that they can notice but not interrupt.  In this case, as soon as Sydney put it away, another child who had been watching us got it out.
Another sensorial work which makes a great visual impression for the child doing the work, and for the other children who see it, are the four boxes of Colored Cylinders.  Ethan was the first one to get them out in September, and he made a big deal of balancing that narrowest red cylinder - it took a few tries!  On another day he got out all four boxes, and built all four towers.  He was an inspiration.
Ellie was thrilled to discover that she could read the first Bob Books, and here she was reading to Carissa.  Once she is more comfortable and confident, we know we will find her reading to a friend rather than to one of us.  With every group of children, the Early Readers develop a life of their own, and we can hardly keep up with who has read what. For now, Ellie will read these first books as often as she wants.  This photo is symbolic in a lovely way too - the child in the light, the teacher as listener and observer.  

While some children are using our Early Readers, others are beginning to learn their first letters - the great process of phonemic awareness and sound-symbol correspondence.  Sisi made it very clear to us that she wanted to learn the sandpaper letters, and in just a few days she practiced our first set of five letters to mastery. Here she was sorting some objects by their beginning sound/letter.  The timing of each child's readiness to learn letters varies widely; it's not a race; and along the way, this support of witnessing others engaged in the same process is invaluable.  Imagine the child standing near-by, and Sisi telling him that 'book' starts with 'b'.  
Many children have been engaged in making these classic little Montessori booklets, the first ones about fish, now about frogs.  Look at Ella's concentration here.   Ella is also in the midst of learning her letters, and she is eager to be told what the words say that she cannot read yet. She loved coloring the parts of the frog, and needed a little help with dotted letters for the labels.   Voilá, a new booklet!  Booklet-making is very often a work that one child inspires another to do, and often they do it side by side.

Now some more math....  You can imagine the impression this beautiful work makes on the absorbent minds of other children who pass by. Liam, who is new to Chickadee this year, quickly demonstrated to us that he already knows the numerals 1 to 10, and he loved laying out the Cards and Counters this way, so neat and orderly. This kind of confident work supports his affinity with numbers, and it always benefits other children who are not quite sure of all those pesky numerals yet.

Another 1-10 work which has been in daily use lately are the Colored Bead Bars.  Mikaela has set the tone - she has chosen this work repeatedly, she counts them all carefully and correctly, and she is beginning to write the numbers.  (I just had a flashback of Mikaela's older brother also repeating this same work so many times!) Some younger new children have been drawn to these bead bars like a magnet, just for the sake of touching them, and maybe counting a couple of them.  Under our watchful eye, this is fine as long as they are used respectfully.
Finally, take a look at Julian's big spread.  He is our oldest this year, and he has taken on a big project with the United States puzzle map.  He is pricking out all the states (not all at once), and as he goes he is learning more of the states' names.  In this view, just today, he decided to write down the names of the states he already knows.   Look closely and you will see that behind him Lila was busy scrubbing an object.  Both of these children were engrossed in their own experience, and in this case it's possible that neither was aware of the other. But everyone is aware of Julian and his ongoing work with puzzle maps.

Framing the beginning and end of this blog are two photos of Tia, another of our new children, engaged in two activities of Practical Life.  In a very real sense, Practical Life frames and shapes the children's experience here.  One day Tia will work with the United States puzzle map, and it's very likely that Julian will still stop by and do some pouring when he wants to relax.  For Tia, right now, polishing the leaves of a plant or carefully pouring beans both have intrinsic value and importance. 

I have led you on a short journey through some sample activities of our fifteen children.  Please remember that we value it all, all works of head and hand - scrubbing frogs and writing numbers, touching triangles and painting colors.  Every day is different, the children are unique, and we know from long experience that we cannot predict where that magic of Montessori synergy will lead the children next. We trust the process.   And the children?  They will take it as they always do, young beings of love and light that they are, one day at a time.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Helping Hands

"Never help a child at a task at which he feels he can succeed."
Maria Montessori

When Rex was doing this sweeping a little while ago, I asked him if I could show him how to hold the broom a little better.  He declined.  He was sweeping just fine, thank you.  He had already moved all the boots out of the way.  As I watched, he swept up a little pile of fir needles and dirt (which collect every day under the boots), he got the dustpan, he gathered up the debris, he dumped it in the trash, and he hung up the broom.  Then he headed out to play.

"Helping hands" are a part of every day for us.  The children become helpers over time, from the first rolling of rugs when they are just 3, to more complex and meaningful chores when they are 5 or 6. We have our "helping hands" chart which serves as a general guide and encouragement.  We change the clips weekly, or more often if the moment is right.  It's all a part of our children's house culture.  Plenty of negotiations happen in front of this wheel!

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal called "Why Children Need Chores" caught my attention. As I read it, I reflected that I had never written much about how the children help to take care of our children's house, so you can thank WSJ for this blog. The link is below.  Near the end of the article, the author wrote this:  "... young adults who began chores at ages 3 and 4 were more likely to have good relationships with family and friends, to achieve academic and early career success, and to be self-sufficient, as compared with those who didn't have chores or who started them as teens."  Wow!  We must remember that in this longitudinal study the chores themselves are not necessarily causative - the chores may reflect a broader, healthier family culture - but it is certainly thought-stimulating.

So what kinds of chores happen here at Chickadee?  What are these young children capable of doing?  And how does it go for us?  I won't pretend that it all goes smoothly, or that every child does something every day, or that they always love helping out.  We hear protests, we see quick, sloppy jobs, we navigate objections about how long a child has been doing the same job.  But with our flexible consistency, over the months and years that a child is here, the culture of helping to care for their special place is sustained, practiced, and mastered.  Here are some glimpses....

Brady and Henry are washing paint brushes.  We've been pairing up younger and older children for some of our jobs this year, and it benefits both of them, mentor and beginner.  Washing, rinsing, and rinsing again - for most children, anything with water is a winner!

Mikaela is rolling up the rugs, leaving their basket more neat and tidy.  Every child is given this lesson in her first month with us, because rugs are a work space in constant use.  Every child learns how to put away her work rug neatly.  But by the end of the morning, rugs are inevitably piled in and flopping over.  Straightening them is a simple and satisfying job for a 3-year-old.

Isabel is doing a meaningful job for an older child - she is putting all the snack bowls in the top rack of the dishwasher at the end of the morning.  Does your child put dishes in the dishwasher at home?  They can do it!

Sydney is dusting.  First she took everything off the shelf and put it on the floor.  Then she dusted with this lambswool duster and a yellow cloth duster.  Then she put everything back on the shelf.  For a more complex or crowded shelf, earlier in the week, Collin has been her partner.  

Ellie loves to clean the big chalkboard. You can see why - it's so nice and wet and shiny!  And since she is one of the children who consistently uses this chalkboard, this job makes perfect sense to her.  She's been doing it a lot.

Meanwhile, in the art room Ella is cleaning the easel.  Again, because she paints almost every day, this job makes sense to her.  We recently covered the easel with clear contact paper,  and it's so much easier to wash clean now.

Seamus is mopping the bathroom.  Often this a 2-person job, younger and older.  First they move the stools to the hall, put water in the mop bucket, take turns mopping, squeeze most of the water out of the mop, and finally dry with an old towel.  Every day this happens! The bathroom is small,  and the children all know how important it is.  (Yes, we still sanitize it.)

For most children, the especially coveted job is lunch helper.  Two children come in from outside a little early and do it with Noriko every day, usually for a week at a time.  I wanted to get Evangeline into this photo, but she knew that her responsibility was the other room, so she would have nothing to do with a staged photo.  Lunch helpers put out the plates and glasses, get the extra chairs from outside, put out the low table for milk, water, and silverware.  Finally they put out the name cards, thus choosing where everyone sits (this is power!) Look closely here, and you will see that Noah has his "lunch helper necklace" on.

More helping hands jobs are not shown here - helping make snack, putting it out, and later, cleaning up snack before outside time, folding laundry, sweeping the front porch or back steps, straightening shelves, and so on.  You get the idea.

My intent in writing this is not only to say, look at all these jobs these capable children do every day, but to offer gentle encouragement to bring a living culture of helping out into your lives at home.   Do follow the link to the WSJ article; it offers some simple guidelines which I don't need to repeat here.  An important part of building this shared experience at home is to remember to acknowledge your child by describing what he has done - "the table is clean again," "you matched up all the socks!" Tell him often that he is "becoming a helper" - not just "good job" or "what a big boy."  Bring your children into the daily reality of caring and helping at home, and remind yourselves when it gets tricky (which it will, even every day) that over time your children will become more responsible, empathic, self-reliant, and capable people.  

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Beyond "Transparent"

"Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment."
Maria Montessori

Our parents have a better sense of their child's Montessori activities and learning this year, because we are now using "Transparent Classroom." Some of you who read this blog are not current parents, so here is a little background: I took the leap into a new, online record-keeping and communication system created for Montessori, called "Transparent Classroom."    It's been an engrossing shift for us, and a breakthrough amount of communication for parents.  My long-established system for lesson plans and record-keeping, which served me for many years, has faded into the past.  In the fall I revised the program's classic list of Montessori lessons;  I rewrote most descriptions to make them more parent-friendly, added many to match our curriculum, and attached photos for every material.   After a lot of behind-the-scenes work, we rolled it out for parents in November.

We are sharing much more information than ever before, and perhaps this helps to dispel some of the mystery surrounding Montessori materials.  Carissa and I enter short notes almost daily, recording the children's main lessons online instead of on paper. All the photos that we post remain in each child's ongoing records; parents can read up on the lessons if they choose, and easily follow their child's progress through the months and years.

So parents are getting lots of messages about their children's activities. Reports are that it is wonderful to get glimpses like this one, of Eva discovering the colored beads - a window into your child's day.  It seems that we've taken a significant step further into the 21st century!

But here's the thing:  it's impossible to describe even a single day at Chickadee. Parents have a more transparent view of their own child's activities as we report them, but not of what other children are doing.   And without this larger view, the picture is incomplete.

Each child has her own inimitable experience, moving within her personal time and space amidst countless encounters, conversations, activities, and shared moments. Life is unfolding naturally, and it's all happening within the sheltered community of our Children's House.  How can it be described? Perhaps general adjectives come closest: amazing, challenging, peaceful, fluid, heated, funny, rich, interesting, nurturing, relaxing - every day new, every day different.

So I've been reflecting recently on what is missing in this new system of ours, and wanting to remind parents to hold that larger view in mind. That's where this blog post comes in...

...because what is missing are the innumerable experiences and impressions that fill every child's day. We might manage to send one photo, and record one or possibly two lessons, for some of the children; we don't post for every child every day.  And yet think of it, every single day every child uses one material after another, engages in one conversation after another, moves from one interest to another, and feels one upset or hurt or joy after another.

What is missing?  The fullness of unfolding life in a Children's House.   Here are some examples:

Our notes are usually about individual children, so missing are reminders of the every-day dynamics of collaboration and learning between children.  They learn so much from watching each other, not to mention working with each other. Here, for instance, Ethan and Eleanor were joyfully sharing this movable alphabet and helping each other find letters. They were working right next to the snack tables too, with friends moving all around them, and everyone was a witness to this happy work.  One of the great blessing of the olders and youngers mingling naturally are the countless ways that they impact each other.  Hard as we try, we cannot convey all of that to you with words or photos.

Imagine our daily group times - so much happens there that we do not express in Transparent Classroom.  For instance, last week Carissa introduced a new science experiment with celery, and to begin, she passed around small pieces of celery for each child to examine and then chew.  See all the hands raised here?  The kids got really excited finding words to describe what they were noticing.  Then as they chewed, more descriptions.  Even the child who declared that she hated celery got into it. The children's interest was increased and influenced by each other's excitement, all this from simple pieces of celery.

What else is missing?  All the sounds and noises that fill our day - the talk, the hmmm of active children, the questions and answers,  the funny and serious conversations, the shouts and (if we're lucky) whispers.   Then there is the whole dimension of music - our frequent songs, practice with rhythms and games, and now the new work listening to  recordings of instruments of the orchestra. Music always helps to gather their energies and stimulate their minds - it's a vital dimension of being, which we can barely indicate with a few words or a photo.

Missing is a view of the frequent repetition of activities, which we value so highly because it provides a deep satisfaction and support to the learning child. We shared this photo of Mikaela in her first lesson with the Binomial Cube via Transparent Classroom, but the way she went back to it again and again? Probably not.  The children find certain niches and passions, and they use the same materials repeatedly, until at some mysterious point they are complete. Repetition surrounds us and shapes the children's days in countless ways.  We will never do justice to this aspect of our Children's House in Transparent Classroom.

  • And so important, the warm-hearted friendships and connections between children cannot possibly be conveyed in Transparent Classroom in any substantive way.  A flowing variety of children playing and interacting with different children in familiar and new ways is always happening, inside and outside.  Last week, for instance, Julian and Seamus were the first to sew their panda pouches, and they instantly became "panda brothers," inseparable.  Their love for each other echoed through everyone's day.  Next week they may continue on, or things will shift again.  It's beautiful that they have the freedom and the comfort to explore what it means to be friends. 

What about outside - the sandbox and forest, the running, the gardens, the chickens, the bikes, the endless inventive play?   An occasional photo is barely a glimpse of the richness of outside play that forms such a central and formative part of every day for these children.   I've written many blog posts about the children and nature, and will again.  These experiences should never be forgotten. 

So to circle back to the beginning,  yes, we've been engrossed in Transparent Classroom this year, wanting to make it the best it can be for our families.  Every parent values seeing a photo of his child doing something interesting that he might never see in person.  For us as guides, the photos and comments for each child form a substantive trail and reminder of what has gone before.   We are still exploring how to maintain a balance with it all - where to find the time, how much to post, how not to get carried away with sending photos, how to convey what is most important, all in the midst of our very busy days.

But there is something mysterious and grand going on for these young children that we who love them must always keep in mind.    The children are constructing themselves, moment by moment, experience by experience.  They are unique and amazing human beings.  Our task as educators, in Montessori's words, is "to aid life, but leave it free to develop."  And most of that will always be beyond simple written communications or photos, whether it's online or off.  We do best to stand in awe before the mystery, and to greet each new day as the miracle it is.