Purpose of This Blog

Devoted to Guiding Educators Towards a Centered and Intentional Montessori Practice.


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.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Walking the Talk: Giving Voice to the Vision

As parents of Upper Elementary students can attest, many pre-adolescent children have a newfound righteousness that is not shy about making itself known. These children can be passionately attached to certain definitions of right and wrong, and can argue vehemently in defense of their opinions. What’s equally noticeable, however, is that unless the adults in their lives provide the structures necessary to turn these ideas into actions, these same children miss out on critical learning opportunities.

When fielding such passion-filled commentary from Upper Elementary children, parents and teachers alike can develop meaningful and measurable experiences for children to explore their beliefs more deeply in ways that build real success and breakthrough. 

In pursuit of this aim, adults might ask themselves:

·    What are the systems and structures available to me that a child might explore to bring life to her/his passions? 

·    In what ways can I foster the development of real and purposeful action?

·    In support of such action, what are the possibilities for failure and disappointment? For joy and empowerment?

In both home and classroom environments, discussing one’s feelings and opinions can find great grounding in exploring empathy. Often confused with sympathy (feeling for another), empathy goes a step further to actually imagining or remembering how it feels (or would feel) to be another; that is, to walk in another’s shoes. Empowering children to understand that everyone possesses needs and feelings as real as their own is an essential building block of conflict resolution and lasting peace.

It is not enough to just believe strongly in something; it needs to be actualized to become real. Adults can mindfully model this transformation by showing children the steps needed to achieve the desired ends. Such partnering can be a powerful learning experience for all those involved. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Historical Empathy: Montessori & "The Settlers of Catan"

The upper elementary Montessori cultural curriculum allows for multiple opportunities for children to uncover meaning from the daily patterns and lifeways of people of the past. Analyzing these practices with the filter of The Fundamental Needs of People, students can develop a resonant sense of why people of the past made the choices they did, and why people today do as they do. 

In a Montessori environment, the discipline of social studies involves working to form an understanding of those that have come before. Much deeper than merely memorizing dates and heads of state, students are provided the structure, time and resources to explore others’ motivations - a kind of historical empathy

In the mid-1990s, German game designer Klaus Tueber created a game that allows players to experience what it might be like to settle, struggle and thrive in a new and unpopulated land. He named this island Catan. 

Each player begins with several settlements and roads, oriented across the board. To be successful, players have to combine strategy and chance to collect the necessary amount of timber, wool, stone, brick and wheat. Over the course of the game players build additional settlements and roads, and can expand their initial properties into cities - collecting the necessary materials through the roll of the dice and trading resources with fellow players. From time to time a "robber” is introduced to the game that blocks the acquisition of needed resources, and leads to the sudden loss or gain of what is required to advance. 

"The Settlers of Catan" is an engaging game with authentic, real-world-like demands and consequences. It can be used beautifully in the classroom as a way of further contextualizing history. The game can easily be woven into studies of exploration, settlement and colonization. 

More recently Teuber created “The Settlers of the Stone Age”, a fantastic historical take on his original game. In this version the parameters are very similar, but the context is early human development and migration out of Africa and across the globe. 

In this game, players have to do more than just garner the necessary resources for survival. In order to spread into different regions of the planet – each with its own climatic extremes and transportation challenges – players have to develop advanced skills and strategies through the use their coveted resources: this time hide, meat, bone, and flint. 

What I appreciate about this version of “Settlers” is the element of resonant choice; that is, players understand the true value of the resources they require and their meaning. What’s more, in playing they can feel the significance of a resource’s loss, gain or intentional use to their early human ancestors. When you have meat, you have the energy to travel. When you have meat and hide, you have the resources to add another explorer to your tribe. When you have flint, bone and hide, you have the materials necessary to establish another camp. 

Desertification helps to drive players out of Africa. A Neanderthal serves in the same capacity as the robber in the original “Settlers” game; this time, the idea of biological competition for resources becomes clearly understood. Once in Asia players must fend off the great saber tooth tiger. In the game the presence of the tiger effectively blocks access to a particular resource. Discussions can be had around the meaning of the presence of these great predators to early humans – both in terms of limiting the ability of a tribe to  fulfill a need, as well as actual predation. 

Throughout the game players must progress through specific skill development to support their ever-present need for resources. Without these skills players must remain confined to specific areas on the globe. In the development of Clothing, players must "master" making shoes, tanning hides, sewing, creating clasps, and jewelry. In Construction, they must learn to build simple hide tents, bone-walled huts, boats, tallow lamps, and make cave paintings. Players must also move through specific Hunting skills: developing flint points, harpoons made of bone, stone axes, the bow and arrow, and animal totems. And, in the preparation of Food, players learn to build fires, create stone hearths, store foods, make pottery, and form statues. 

"The Settlers of the Stone Age" is a wonderful tool to employ when teaching children about early humans. It is a role-playing game that offers students the chance to internalize their learning. Through considering one's needs, weighing risks, and vetting probable consequences children in an upper elementary classroom can experience profound shifts in their understanding of our past while at play.

For Montessori educators, making history come alive is part and parcel of what we do. Using the "Settlers" games allows us to step aside and let additional learning unfold - experienced first by the children. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

Elegant Collaborations: The Work of Byrd Baylor & Peter Parnell

I adore the way that Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnall have collaborated over three decades to create beautiful and poignant stories for children and adults alike. These are simple tales in form and layout, yet profoundly complex when read again and with fresh eyes - there is magic hidden in them.

I have used these stories in my classrooms as introductions to larger concepts, and also just for the space and breath they provide. Each of these fables is a meditation on old ways of knowing, some prehistoric and some as old as the Earth itself.

How do we truly and deeply connect children to their world?

In the push for digital literacy we cannot forget and forgo the importance of children feeling the world around them. It is not enough to show; we must provide experiences for them to do: to touch, to smell, to listen, to taste, to be still and to know.

In The Way to Start a Day, Baylor and Parnall remind us of the simple ritual of greeting the Sun each morning. When we intentionally share our interest in these cosmic rhythms, we demonstrate its value to our children. Taken further, we can overtly connect our practices to the rituals of our ancestors, and to people across the globe and through time.

These connections are like the colors on the palette held by a painter, each color a new way to represent the detail of the subject being painted. When we root our modern lives in the natural patterns around us, and connect to the rituals held by cultures around the world, we add to the richness of what it means to be human.

Happy New Year! Looking forward to this next voyage around the Sun.

The Way to Start a Day, by Byrd Baylor and illustrated by Peter Parnall
  • ISBN-13: 9780684156514
  • ISBN-10: 0684156512

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