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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.