Purpose of This Blog

Devoted to guiding educators towards a centered and intentional Montessori practice.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Seeking Truth in a Time of War: The Pledge of Allegiance in a Montessori Classroom


There is a level of transparency that teachers can create with their students that allows for real and meaningful relationships to develop – a way of being with children that offers Truth a seat at circle. This is no small invitation, for such a guest asks for consistency in practice and humility in spirit.

Montessori educators strive to build spaces that allow children to discover themselves unencumbered by the druthers and opinions of the adults around them. It is the structure inherent to a Montessori classroom, the integrated curricula, the specialized materials, and a holistic view of human development that speaks to the children – not necessarily the beliefs of the guides present in the environment.

*           *           *           *

This year, on Constitution Day and later on Veterans Day, I was moved and troubled by our practice of one of the most hallowed habits of an American public school: the Pledge of Allegiance. Each day, from classroom to classroom, students stand and face the flag with a right hand over their heart and recite the Pledge along with children’s voices coming over the PA.

"I pledge allegiance to the Flag
 of the United States of America,
and to the Republic for which it stands,
one Nation under God,
indivisible,
with liberty and justice for all."

In my observations, often the children’s corporate recitation is out of sync with the guiding tempo. In some classrooms, children mumble or mouth half of the words. In others, children visit with their neighbors during the fifteen seconds or so needed to say the Pledge.

As professional educators, if we witness confusion, lack of enthusiasm, or disrespect following a lesson we know to first look inwardly to examine our own teaching practices: Was it the right time? Was it the correct group of children? Was the content appropriate and resonant? Was the material delivered in a way that suited the learners?

In the case of my witnessing children reciting the Pledge I wonder if we need to add an additional question to our meditation:

Should we be doing it at all?

There are routines and patterns that schools develop to create a sense of community and purpose. These are built to be in line with the institution’s grounding philosophy, so to underscore and emphasize what is held as important and meaningful and real. In Montessori classrooms we scaffold our practices - from walking on line, to the gathering of materials, to working with others – in a way that allows for the personal integration of a practice. These routines become held dear because the children can feel their importance – for themselves and for the care of the community.

I recognize that in the lives of public school children the Pledge is a mandated daily activity. I believe, however, that we need to think clearly about how to frame this part of our day; in fact, to create teachable moments using it as a centerpiece: word study, history of the Pledge and the changes to its text over time, nationalism vs. patriotism, civil rights, etc.

In reciting the Pledge:

  • What is the educational aim?

  • How else might we practice our patriotism?

  • In what other ways could we be demonstrating good citizenship?


When it comes to the Pledge of Allegiance, I believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with teaching kids to recite a promise, the meaning of which they do not fully understand.

I believe that in having children participate in the Pledge without an attached frame of reference we are modeling for them that it is okay to just do, and not think about why. I worry that we are engendering a practice of not asking questions, of following directions without disobedience – of being seen but not heard. True learning, of course, happens when we stop and look twice – when what we thought we understood is laid open for further review.


*           *           *           *

Authentic Montessori programs work tirelessly to integrate Peace Education into the children’s day, as well as the running of the school; it is part and parcel of what such schools stand for, it is who they are. We need to remember that this is a curriculum of action. It is much more that creating a feeling. It is about fostering an outward way of being grounded in a powerful sense of oneself and one’s connection to the universe.

Our job, as peacemakers, is to do and say the difficult things. It is to question the status quo and hold it up to the light of Truth.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Winter Solstice



In a Montessori classroom, the opportunities for curricular cross-pollination are many: a teacher’s presentation may lead to deeper questions that enrich and extend; a student-led study may pull from all areas of the curriculum before it feels complete. Each content area is able to influence the others, depending upon the medium required of the educational journey. Working together, the teacher and child use the resources before them to create meaning from their academic investigations.

There is, of course, another plane to this interweaving of curricula - one that lies in the space between the pages of our albums. At times, the studies we embark upon create far more questions than provide answers. While we may be able to label, define, describe, and share some parts of the universe and its rhythms there is still great mystery that leaves us all in awe.

In The Winter Solstice, written by Ellen Jackson and illustrated by Jan Davey Ellis, the search to make sense of one such mystery is beautifully illuminated.
Chronicling ancient people from Europe and North and South America, Jackson and Davey create a feeing for how some of our forebears approached the coming darkness and prepared for it’s hopeful return.

This time of year, as the days get shorter and the air temperatures fall, we all can feel something of a kinship for our ancestors. Can you imagine how the ancients must have approached the changing of the seasons? What practices and beliefs were created to explain the change, and provide for a return to what was hoped for?

Jackson’s writing reads like a whispered story over a fire, while Ellis’ painting places us beside people from many cultures as they share with us their way of knowing. Older students can both grasp the scientific basis for the changing of the seasons, and can marvel at how the ancients grappled with what must have been a very tenuous and scary time each year.

Share this set of vignettes with your students and staff. Allow them to explore that sense of wonder that comes from trying to understand people from the past. Like we do when discussing the Fundamental Needs, each new perspective on the human condition brings the possibility of new depths to our learning.

Enjoy the reading, and Happy Solstice!

The Winter Solstice
Story by Ellen Jackson, illustrations by Jan Davey Ellis
ISBN: 1-56294-722-2

Discover other Winter Solstice related activities bellow:

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Looking for Grace in the Work We Do


The school days of an educator can be varied and unexpected. Some roll smoothly as designed; most, however, have their own rhythm and tempo - despite even the best-laid plans. And, on others, if might feel as if there is an endless series of emergencies to which one constantly responding.

I recently experienced a day when little dramas seemed to fill the hours. While brainstorming with a student about possible alternative choices and the way forward, I found that I was able to withdraw a bit – almost watching our conversation take place from above. I could forecast where our discussion was going, and I knew that I didn’t like where we were headed.

I decided then to shift gears and approach the situation in another way; that is, by focusing on what I was not seeing, not hearing - in short, the heart space hidden by the emotion on the surface.

As I reflect upon that conversation, I am reminded of a time in my youth when I was walking off-trail through the dusty floor of a dense lodgepole pine forest. That day I was very intent on sticking to the bearing that I had cast through the woods, focused on navigating wisely around the trees and boulders that lay in my path so to stay true to my course. My eyes would glance up from map and compass, select a point to walk towards that was in line with my bearing, and I would walk to that mark - repeating the process as each successive waypoint was reached. This I did for hours.

Later that morning, I was awakened by something suddenly between the more sessile things I had been working around. There, in the dappled light of the mid-day sun, stood a young doe and her fawn. The two stood there as if stone, their presence only illuminated by how their breath caught in the rays of the near-vertical light reaching the forest floor. I remember gasping and feeling as if my heart might break open. There, amongst the concentration and vigilance that had filled my morning stood such tremendous beauty, such a powerful sense of belonging.

I lingered for a time, suspended – afraid to move or breathe lest the moment pass to quickly. When I finally did take a step onward it was as if my vision had changed. Everything was more clear, more crisp. In fact, I was no longer drawn to the points along my bearing, but rather to the spaces in-between.

What I realized after my journey through the forest was that for much of the time I was hiking my hyperawareness to my travel plan blinded me to the magic around me.

In our work as educators, do we so focus on the end point that we miss the beauty and possibility present to us in each moment? By focusing on the obstructions, the obstacles and challenges before us, do we invite single-minded vision, resentment and exhaustion?

When we find Grace in our work it is in the space between and around the challenges that task our mortal energies, not merely when we reach a resolution to a particular conflict. In pausing along the way we open up an amazing array of possible connections with the Divine.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angle Food Cake




There are moments in one’s classroom when it just feels right to bring the class together and re-center. Sometimes this is planned for and built into the day. And at others, the spontaneity seems to add magic to what is shared.

I was introduced to The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake while in 6-9 training over a decade ago. There, instead of the series of presentations that were scheduled, our trainer regaled us with this marvelous tale. We all relaxed and became children again – suddenly immersed in a story that was, at once, fantasy and totally believable.

Since that time I have shared this book with many classrooms, at department meetings, and with my own children. (My kids and I even followed the recipe one lazy summer afternoon. It makes for one special cake!)

It’s easy to see why the book is so attractive. With an engaging story by Nancy Willard and gorgeous illustrations by Richard Jesse Watson, you will be drawn in by the everyday quality of the tale. But, as is often the case, the reader soon realizes that there is more going on that meets the eye.

Share this book with people you love: the students in your classroom, your colleagues, and your children at home. The story – and its underlying message – sticks with you like the sweet memory of a beloved dessert.

Bon appetit!

The High Rise Glorious Skittle Scat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake
Story by Nancy Willard, Illustrations by Richard Jesse Watson
ISBN: 0-15-201019-X 












Sunday, August 19, 2012

Weaving the Cosmos


Imagine a time when our ancestors’ senses were so finely tuned as to keep them constantly alert and watchful and curious; a time when our fossil human relatives had not the distractions or conveniences of today’s world, but lived in and for the moment. 

The knowledge housed in their active animal minds was not, could not, be built from experiences held in isolation. Their very survival demanded that they were constantly learning, always making connections between their natural surroundings, their companions, and the rhythms of their own bodies. For these early humans, they were both of the universe and truly in it - that is, living parts of the flowing and changing cosmos. 

And then, somewhere in our recent history, these closest of ancient human ancestors developed the intellect and desire to learn more beyond what was necessary to satisfy their most immediate physical needs. 

They became conscious.

When a being can cogently reflect upon its own thinking, really exciting things begin to happen: questions emerge, experiments occur, and a sense of place and purpose develop.
Now, some two hundred thousand years or so since our own species first appeared on the planet, we have the chance to purposefully rekindle that ancient way of interacting with the world in our schools. 

In how and what we teach, 
we can share with children their part in 
 - and connection to - the cosmos.

Maria Montessori believed that to teach children was to share with them the fullness of the universe; that it is not solely separate chunks existing independently. Though we are most often housed in linearly designed buildings, we do not have to think, create or teach in boxes. It does not preclude us from creating deeply resonant learning experiences for our students. If anything, such containers highlight the importance of reaching way back, to a way of knowing that involves making connections, and seeing the whole from its parts. Montessori's approach to teaching, and the integrated curriculum she promoted, is designed to allow for such interplay.
 
That we guide children through truly separate content is an illusion.


 Each strand is connected to the others.


The cultural lessons help to frame and connect the classroom community. 


Science...


 ...as described by Math and Geometry.


Social Studies... 


...as described by Language Arts.

Children recognize the connections between subject areas as avenues are opened to them that allow for self-directed inquiry and exploration, as well as opportunities to demonstrate understanding. Knowledge gained from one set of experiences serves as an asset as the children move on to explore parallel studies. Deliberate exposure to distinguishable works, connected to greater themes, deepens the children’s integration of this holistic perspective.

Juxtaposing content awakens new meanings.

We can create an intentional interplay between the disciplines. We can build authentic learning environments through demonstrating the interconnectedness of it all, teachers and students alike living a thirst and quest for understanding.  


Many strands...


...woven together...


taken as one.



Tuesday, June 19, 2012

How We Say, What We Say - Part II




In November of 2011, shortly after starting this blog, I created a "wordle" all of the text of the posts to date in an effort to explore how I was saying what I was saying. It was certainly an interesting reflection of my priorities and sensibilities; at least, in how I expressed them at the time.

Now, nearly eight months and eighteen posts later, I have created another graphic upon which to reflect.

Try it out with your own work: www.wordle.net

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Building the Pink Tower

 




Monday, June 4, 2012

On Circles & Cycles in a Montessori Classroom

 
There is an elegant geometry inherent to our daily lives. This extends beyond the overt energy of our physical surroundings, to that which is embedded within the act of living itself. The systems we work within, the routines we perform, the emotional ether we inhabit – each has a rhythm that is often repetitive and predictable.


Philosophy

Children of a Montessori community, given the power and respect to learn to govern themselves, recognize the circular symmetry of their school day experience. From lessons, to self-directed work cycle, to specials the students chart an arcing course through their time spent in school.

The scope and sequence of lessons and co-curricular experiences that a Montessori teacher brings to the classroom, if truly interdisciplinary, necessarily holds a similar circular form. Students recognize the connections between subject areas as avenues are opened to them that allow for self-directed inquiry and exploration, as well as opportunities to demonstrate understanding. Knowledge gained from one set of experiences serves as an asset as the children move to explore parallel studies. Deliberate exposure to distinguishable works connected to greater themes deepens the children’s integration of this holistic perspective.

As such, both the school day and academic studies take the form of integrated wholes; at times divided into separate units, but always continuously connected through carefully designed scheduling and themes.

It is the conscious tying together of seemingly separate and linear studies, through holistic academic partnerships, that provides a Montessori education with its most precious gift: the child’s ultimate awareness of the ecology of her experience. As educators for peace, this is our paramount responsibility.


Practice

In a Montessori classroom, cycles naturally evolve as the culture of the community develops. This is first rooted in the meaningful ways in which the children’s environment is prepared. As the students become more comfortable with the dedicated areas of the classroom and the patterns of traffic flow within it, they adopt this physical blueprint and learn to navigate their immediate surroundings with care, comfort and ease. Upon this foundation, and with practice, there grows and innate awareness of the rhythms of the day: work cycle, lessons, specials, recess, lunch, etc. This recognition of the looping circles present in our daily lives connecting day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, etc. is a critically significant component of a successful Montessori classroom. From a child’s perspective freedom, used wisely, requires a thoughtful awareness of the dynamic parameters of one’s potential experience.

Within this primed atmosphere, the choices that a Montessori teacher makes when designing the flow of lessons can dramatically extend the students’ collected, holistic view of their school day experience. The conscious use of lessons that emphasize a circular completeness, both as individual works and as continuing themes, further instills in children the interdependence of their studies.

The task of the Montessori teacher is to frame individual lessons within the larger concepts that revisit the idea of the unified wholeness of a circle. Our cultural studies drive these thematic units, encompassing language and mathematics from this foundation. While competency is a priority it is not the ultimate measure of achievement. Beyond static academic assessment, the principle objective of this work is for teachers to learn to authentically foster the children’s intimate awareness of the cosmos and their place in it. 

(Image source: www. ensomagazine.com)

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

E Pluribus Unum: The Mighty Work of Chris Jordan

       

I came to the work of artist Chris Jordan quite by surprise.
 
Years ago, working in a new classroom, I was challenged to inspire my students to realize the full effect of their social interactions - much of which, at the time, were hurtful. In an effort to deepen their understanding of the magnitude of their actions, I went searching for data - figures so large and incomprehensible that the shear number of digits presented would leave the children spellbound, and incite them to change their behaviors. My attempt was to intellectually connect the results of our challenging classroom dynamics to the broader consequences of human action outside of school. 

What I found was that, much like the films of Godfrey Reggio, so much can be said without words: it's the images themselves that tell the story, and more. I was reminded of the powerful simplicity of a Montessori impressionistic lesson. Could I, using an alternative medium, engender such an effect and thirst for more information?

My introduction to Jordan's work was through his mesmerizing and haunting series Running the Numbers, a look at consumption and excess in the United States. I was transfixed. Image after image left me speechless. As I collected these images and prepared them to present to my class, I was deeply moved - invigorated even - by what I was seeing. 

What changed in me was that I, too, had to shift. I, as my students' guide, had to reflect as deeply as I was asking them to. What was it about my craft that was not yet aligning with my students' needs?

And I came to this: Our practice is our potential

The last piece of Jordan's that I was introduced to further rooted this notion. In E Pluribus Unum Jordan "depicts the names of one million organizations around the world that are devoted to peace, environmental stewardship, social justice, and the preservation of diverse and indigenous culture." In this work I saw and felt the power of many doing what is right. As I repeatedly clicked on the initial image, I was transported through a dense and lacy spirograph to the realization that each of the strands was made from the names of groups striving to make the world a better place.


In this work, I had found the balanced perspective that I - and my students - needed. Yes, we were working through a hard time. And, yes, there were behaviors that needed to be highlighted and changed. As importantly, however, was the positive notion that change was possible and powerful.





Sunday, April 22, 2012

How We Know What We Know: The Assessment Wheel




Parents in a public Montessori elementary program will often ask their child’s teacher how they know what they know about their students. In the absence of regular quizzes and tests, many wonder where in the day teachers actually assess their students and plan for next steps.

The answer is always! In a Montessori environment the teacher works in concert with the children to drive the curriculum. While we naturally follow a rich scope and sequence for teaching across the content areas, we are also constantly assessing to see: (1) if the content is resonating with each child, and how; (2) where each child’s own interests reside and how to support this self-discovery; and, (3) in what other ways content can be shared with children so that learners of all styles can find meaning in their work. This process of Scientific Observation is the cornerstone of assessment in a Montessori environment.

We also collect data in more familiar ways: reception to lessons, follow-up work, and from on-going portfolio development derived from teacher-led presentations and self-directed student explorations. This is Formative Assessment, progress monitoring along the way to check for mastery and understanding.

At year’s end we look to large cumulative projects, ones that demand skill from multiple content areas, to show us how children are connecting the many concepts woven together in the curriculum. Such Summative Assessment gives us a measure of a child’s growth through the year. In public schools, students also sit for the annual state exam, the results of which tell us how our students’ demonstrated test-knowledge compares to their peers statewide. These scores, however, need to be tempered by the fact that in a Montessori environment we “follow the child”; that is, we teach them concepts when they are ready, not because it’s on the calendar.

The Montessori teacher is an artist - trained in noticing the cognitive, emotional, social, and behavioral needs of children. We are constantly assessing a child's position along her/his own arc of educational understanding, and adjusting our practices to best meet them when they’re ready to learn. 


 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature's Survivors

  
 
While perusing my local library’s children’s section, I found a wonderful collection of playful poems, insightful science and glorious artwork. In Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors, written by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Beckie Prange, the reader is treated to an engrossing portfolio of fourteen success stories from the timeline of life.
    
I was spellbound just opening the book to the endpapers. What greeted me was an impressionistic illustration of the history of life on Earth. Using 46 meters of cotton string and the brilliant colors of the rainbow, Prange recreates and elaborates upon the Long Black Line. Rather than stretching down a long hall, or across a field, this timeline bends and swirls to fit within a much smaller space. Interestingly, the effect is as profound, held in our very hands.

With each page I was drawn deeper, continuously fascinated by the discoveries I was making – new knowledge about organisms, some of whom I thought I knew quite well.

But that’s part of the magic, right? To allow for and celebrate the known becoming new and strange again.

I greatly appreciated how Sidman and Prange chose, for some of their examples, species that are more often maligned than revered. How refreshing to see a positive and inquisitive voice brought to grasses, crows, dandelions and coyotes. In an age where the pursuit of ease and cleanliness seems to be paramount for many adults, to find in this book organisms often given a bad reputation for being irritating or troublesome was especially gratifying.

As with contemporary compendiums on topics of nature and survival, this book too also brings to light some of the present dangers that threaten the species highlighted within. Sidman’s text, however, is well balanced – allowing for the notation of real threats without resorting lambasting humans outright – for nothing is quite that simple.

The final line offers both the hope and challenge that humans bear:

“Our cooperative nature leads to acts of great kindness and compassion, while our competitiveness – combined with a tendency to crowd out other species – makes us one of the most destructive species on earth.”

I invite you to add Ubiquitous to your classroom collection. It will enchant readers of any age, and provide for the possibility of great discussions on our place and role in it all.

Enjoy!

Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors (ISBN: 978-0-618-71719-4)


Thursday, March 1, 2012

Teaching with Spirit: Maria Montessori's Cosmic Vision



One of the great pleasures of being a Montessori educator is the opportunity for reflection and renewal that is made possible by the work we do. Recently I had no less than a spiritual awakening when considering our craft.

An elder Quaker friend of mine was speaking of the importance of discernment when attempting to move forward when challenged; that is, letting go of our own preoccupations so to let the Divine inspire our actions. Through this process, one winnows the desires, thoughts, and personal attachments that might otherwise cloud guidance from Spirit.

It struck me profoundly that this is what we attempt to do in a Montessori environment: prepare ourselves to be open to receive the Light of each child.

In our schools we approach children with unprejudiced hearts – so to be led by them. I wonder, however, if we have missed the full import of what Montessori was intending. What if Montessori’s vision was much more profound? What if the mandate to “follow the child” was to mean something far greater than a technical approach for working with children?

What if it implies that the act of teaching must be transformed so to allow for the conscious care-taking of the Spirit within the children we serve?
 
*                 *                *                *                *                *

Montessorians often use the term spirit to describe the indescribable, that part of a child that is unique and original and ever-unfolding. Given the weight of the term, such talk is usually couched as a holistic view of the child – one that encapsulates cognitive, social, emotional and physical development - yet that remains special to each individual. In that manner, we commonly talk of the children as spiritual beings, eager for learning and attachment.

I contend that there is much more that we can do. I believe that when Montessori spoke of preparing the classroom, she meant laying the temple bare for worship. When she wrote of preparing the teacher, it was much more than good eating and sleeping habits, and time for oneself so that one could be present for others.

Rather, it was something much more profound. At the core, she too asks us to enter into a pattern of discernment, separating our wants and needs and desires, our fears and preoccupations and external directives, so to illuminate the Light of the child. When Montessori tells us to "follow the child" it is akin to reminding us to let the Divine show us the way.

  • When we speak of preparing the teacher, we are preparing ourselves as mindful tenders of the Light.

  • When we speak of preparing the environment, we are preparing the cathedral to receive the worship that is the work we do together.

  • Guiding becomes stewardship.

  • Manipulatives become meditations.

  • The flow-state that a child reaches with her work is evidence of a complete unification between oneself and Spirit. 

*                 *                *                *                *                *

What if we were to re-frame our practice as a spiritual one? Can we find that center – beyond curriculum alone - to the root of Montessori’s cosmic vision? What if we were to shift our mandate, to become one of tending to the Light that is within each child? If we could create an opening for such spiritual transformation, imagine what would be possible.

There is nothing more important than to be present for the children in our care. We are the stewards of their Light.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Children Centered Learning - Learning Centered Children


Sebastian was a very particular child. Prone to believing he was right and making his opinions known to all, he was a student for whom daily struggles were common: arriving on time, staying on task, choosing challenging work, doing work that was not always his choice, sticking to a schedule, etc. For a teacher still relatively new to the field of elementary education, Sebastian was a challenge for me amongst a Montessori classroom of able, driven and disciplined upper elementary students.

There came a day when Sebastian began working on a grand castle construction, with cardboard and paint and construction paper. It was a project not directly linked to a unit of study which I had introduced, but seemed to engage him and keep him happy. This went on for days, then a couple of weeks - to the exclusion of most of his other work. From my, then, myopic perspective Sebastian was falling behind. I became worried and resentful, and began to react to his intransigence from that ungrounded place of fear.

Teachers are masters at being able to adapt to their immediate environment. In training, a student teacher gets one version of what is right and just and good for children - and works to justify this vision with one's own. Then, in his first posting, he receives the principal's version of what is best, and again works to adapt his beliefs to this. Parents, too, offer their perspectives, desires and needs - which  one also factors in to his teaching practice. Lastly, but most importantly, the children demonstrate to the teacher their needs for real and deep and purposeful learning.

The teacher is, therefore, asked to wear multiple filters of perception that are often at odds with one another. Or, if not directly opposite, contradictory enough that the teacher can feel stymied and cautious, rather than joyous and alive for his students.

Slowly, a change happens. A teacher, so wanting to do right by all of the multiple stakeholders at the door, will resolve the competing interests to form a vector that forges the truest path between: doing a little of each to move forward with a new definition of authenticity.

And so it was with me and Sebastian: me placing demands upon him to do and achieve; he resisting and acting out with daily bouts of defiance. There were good days, weeks even, when a balance could be won where both he and I felt like we were doing our jobs - learning and teaching.

What I did not expect was that, all along, he was teaching me.

Nearly a month into his work, I came to tell Sebastian that it was time to wrap up the project - that it had gone on too long and that the other works that he was responsible for were going unaccomplished. Despite previous attempts at bargaining, and trading the completion of my list of to-dos for time on his castle, Sebastian remained determined and undaunted.

When I said it was the end - time to put the castle away for good, to take it home and move on - Sebastian became protective and angry. Unbelievably, in retrospect, I thought this was just another example of Sebastian being determined to do work only on his terms. He and I were equally frustrated. I felt that my authority was being undermined and, as a new teacher to this classroom and school, I believed that it was important that I make a stand.

Finally, with tears welling in his eyes, Sebastian looked up at me and said:

"But this is my work... It's for me!"

A that moment everything changed, both for me as a teacher and as a person living in the world. That's when I got it. That is wasn't about the curriculum, benchmarks, standards, mandated testing, or the concerns of the parents; it was about Sebastian at that moment, in that space, with that work. That's when Montessori's vision and hope for the world all made sense.

I grew more in that instant than in any seminar, more than any mentor could have taught me. It was about Sebastian having ownership of what he was learning. Without my oversight he was masterfully delving deeply into personally relevant work. Through that work, he grew in ways that I could have never hoped for through prescribing lesson material for him to practice. Once I could see that, and accept it as the way forward, everything was transformed for Sebastian and me. We had a deeper connection, and that connection was our mutual love of work.

Many years distant now from that experience, I often reflect on that moment. In training and coaching teachers, so much of what I speak of today is learning to let go; that is, letting the children show you where to go with them and how. Naturally, there is a balance. We have to be mindful to not let the pedagogical pendulum swing to the opposite extreme - where freedom to learn is mistaken for the end in itself. But it is the essence of what we do. Children have an untapped awareness and understanding that has the power to transform their connection to schooling, education and to life -  if we only listen.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Call to Action

 


A Montessori school can be an empowering community center where hearts and minds meet, are strengthened, and challenged to do more. It is the bridge between a child’s family and culture, and one’s society and the greater world.


There - children, parents, faculty and staff work together to build a new foundation for rich and conscious living.  

The blessing and challenge of charter Montessori schools is that many of our families come in search of something that’s different and better for their child. What they don’t realize, and what we often fail to articulate in both publicity and practice, is that to come to a Montessori school is to embrace a life-changing, and affirming, shift in being.

To send your child to a Montessori school is to accept it as a place for deep rethinking of how we live our lives.

Charter Montessori schools, too, can become so overwhelmed with doing justice to both state standards and the Montessori approach and curricula that neither is accomplished well. And so goes the reputation of what is “Montessori”.

In an attempt to appear just as good as conventional public schools we dilute the power and potency of what we can offer.

We tend to apologize for how we’re different, instead of celebrating what we’re doing.

For charter Montessori schools to move ahead, we need a fundamental re-centering of who we are.

With every day we are consciously moving forward to that place of deeper understanding – where our souls and our outward lives meet. As members of a Montessori community we help knit the fabric that holds our society together; and more: we have the potential to remake the very yarn we use.

Let us make our words and actions so meaningful and resonant that the hearts and minds of our families can find their centers in our schools. 

Change begins with each of us, every day.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Classroom Without Walls

 
We each have an incredible gift: the ability to engage children with the world - indeed, the universe - that surrounds them and, of which, they are an integral part.

Working with children, our job is one of setting the kindling for the wonderful sparks of curiosity and deep interest to spring forth. While there may be a linear progression of lesson delivery in our albums, we don’t always teach that way, nor do we make overt and obvious the connections between the seemingly disparate ideas and materials across the curriculum that we share.

We wait for the “ah-has.” It is up to the students, alone or collectively, to do the work of the synapses – to make those links, to leap the gaps between ideas towards a holistic understanding of everything around and within them.

There is a way of knowing that comes from being genuinely part of what you are attempting to understand. That is, an authentic knowledge rooted in sensorial experiences that tickle and surprise. Through slowing down and taking our time, looking at the familiar from different perspectives, we can deeply explore the wild spaces around us. So it can be with the natural world outside the classroom.

When we venture forth into nature with children our intention is to make connections, becoming so familiar with the natural world that we receive it as a source of deep insight and practical wisdom.

Do we teach in a spontaneous way?

Is the time we spend with the children of ‘full value’ and authentic?

What role does nature play in our days?

Does it appear as trips out-and-about or as an integrated and seamless part of the children’s learning environment? Both?

What pedagogical value has the experience of wild places?


Finding the Wildness Within

As a classroom teacher, I remember fondly our studies in Human History: first examining and classifying the human animal; then drawing connections between our closest living relatives, and most recently to the epic stories of the earliest of humans and how they changed with and adapted to their dynamic living environments to suit their needs.

This part of the cultural curriculum is comprised of a series of presentations, discussions and activities that highlight, at their roots, the unavoidable and startling idea for many of the children that we are of part of the animal kingdom – in fact, from and part of the natural world.

Through our own evolution humans have developed incredible technologies to use in the act of making our lives more comfortable and efficient. From the hand axe to the microprocessor, we have created incredibly complex tools and systems to better our collective lives.

Today, I wonder what has been subjugated; what primordial internal rhythms have taken a back seat through this process of discovery and creation. Not purposefully - just due to the ease and convenience of innovation.  I would argue that for people living in the ‘developed’ world it is our instinctual knowledge that has been buried.

“To Touch and Feel is to Experience. Many people live out their entire lives without really Touching or being Touched by anything. These people live in a world of mind and imagination that may move them sometimes to joy, tears, happiness or sorrow. But these people never really Touch. They do not live and become one with life.”
- Hymeneyohsts Storm, in Seven Arrows (1972)

Perhaps, for many of us, the most readily accessible instinctual knowledge comes in the form of the oft-quoted ‘freeze, fight or flight’ response; that is, in times of sudden stress, the rush of adrenaline that our bodies feel prior to wishing invisibility, throwing a punch or turning and escaping.

This is the visceral pull of our animal ancestry, the survival skill of our ancestors that kept them (and us) alive. It’s the surging feeling in our body when we narrowly avoid a car accident, for example. The rush is overpowering and memorable – a taste of what it felt like to be a wild predator or prey.

The instinctual skill set, of course, also includes a more subtle way of knowing:  knowledge of the seasons, local and regional geography and weather patterns, the flora and fauna common to your home-ground, etc.

Through our lives are we searching, questing for intimacy?

Can a profound connection to the natural – as the ‘other’ animals experience it - deepen, enrich and inform your life and way of living?

I believe so. I believe that there is a thirst within us all to regain the original knowledge of the Earth. Look at children as they play in the natural spaces around them. There is an intensity and exuberance expressed that appears so wonderfully organic. They appear to distil joy from their experience of the world.

“What a joy it is to feel the soft, springy earth under my feet
once more, to follow the grassy roads that lead to ferny brooks
where I can bathe my fingers in a cataract of rippling notes, or to clamber over a stone wall into green fields that tumble and roll and climb in riotous gladness!”
- Helen Keller, in The Story of my Life (1903)

When was the last time you, as an adult, experienced such grounded elation and connection? Let us go out with our students and experience the world through the heightened and unencumbered senses of childhood.


Walking in the World

The traditional view is that there are two ways of interacting with the natural world, and with anything outside of yourself, I suppose: first, recognizing it as something similar to you, perhaps near enough to be considered part of you; and, second, as an ‘other’, outside and perceived as ‘distant’ from yourself.

The two views are not necessarily mutually exclusive. There is an overlap wherein resides the zone of integrating new ideas that inform one’s true self.

“I would like to learn, or remember, how to live…not so much to learn how to live as, frankly, to forget about it. That is, I don't think I can learn from a wild animal how to live in particular--shall I suck warm blood, hold my tail high, walk with my footprints precisely over the prints of my hands? But I might learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical sense and the dignity of living without bias or motive.”
- Annie Dillard, in “Living Like Weasels”
from The Annie Dillard Reader (1994)

Sometimes when we venture outdoors with children we do so with a finite goal in mind, one big take home message. When this agenda overrides the ‘draw of the wild and the will of the child’ we find ourselves frustrated, struggling to keep the students listening and focused on the guide or program.

When given the chance to explore a nature-space many children can barely contain themselves – the urge to run, jump, sneak, creep, climb, crawl, sit quietly, sing madly resonates within them so strongly. Let’s all remember to have fun out there – maybe even for the sake of pure joy itself!

“ I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused – a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love – then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.”
- Rachel Carson, in Sense of Wonder (1965)

Begin by just going out, exploring and experiencing - trying hard not to put limits on the form of exploration chosen. Hold too tight the reins, and you immediately suffocate the potential and possibility inherent to the child’s internal momentum and the game is up, lost. Just go out and see what happens. Then gather and share what the children discovered.

The next time that you venture forth, return to the same place (for there is comfort in the familiar) and change the format a bit: invite the children to sit quietly for five minutes, thinking, writing, drawing. Then offer a chance for open sharing and cooperate reflection on the collective experiences.

“Don’t do something. Just sit there”
 – Crazy Creek Company motto, Red Lodge, Montana USA

In the days and weeks that follow, extend the period of solitude and quiet until – when you call everyone back together it begins to take them longer and longer to pull themselves away. Then you know that the connections that they are making are from the heart and that the children have formed a dynamic friendship with nature that is very personal.

You can vary how you wrap-up these experiences: sometimes with a period of sharing; at others, just a mellow gathering and return to the classroom. Often the quiet space following such a personal encounter serves as the fixer for a very memorable time out.

In time, the ecological literacy and emotional comfort that the children have developed transfers nicely to a deepening of more formal scientific studies and conservation service projects. Their newfound sense of belonging extends to a feeling of responsibility: not just do the children enjoy going out, for themselves - they are called to do it.

When we mindfully explore nature with children we facilitate a conversation between the child and the wildness of which s/he is a part. Let it take over.