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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.

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