Montessori Moments

October 3, 2009


John is a 4.5 year old boy from a broken home.  His parents are bitterly divorced and he lives with his dad, step-mom, and twin toddlers from the current marriage.  John sleeps over at his mom’s house every other Wednesday and every weekend.

The dad and step-mom are very nice, but very young and very overwhelmed with so many little children.  John came to my class one year ago as a 3.5-year old, because his previous teacher couldn’t handle him.  Through a lot of tough love and positive discipline in the prepared environment, John began to settle down and find joy in the Montessori materials.  This was a long and arduous process, which took most of the year, but I could see genuine progress and maturity around the time we celebrated his fourth birthday towards the end of the school year.

I still struggled to help him find purposeful work, and he refuses to do anything related to sandpaper letters or the moveable alphabet, so he’s at least a year behind where he should be academically.  However, he was happy, understood the limits, and was always eager to help.  He even displayed strong concentration when working with metal insets and constructive triangles, and his coloring work went from dark and aggressive to colorful and well-organized.

At the beginning of this school year, he was still doing relatively well, although there was the expected rowdiness associated with the start of the school year.  A few weeks ago, however, things changed.  John began acting up: he got into physical fights, stopped following the rules, and had a strange nervous energy.  I talked to the director of the school about it, and she let me know that John’s dad and step-mom were expecting a baby.  Because John hadn’t mentioned anything, I let it be for the moment, and returned to the tough love, positive discipline, and Montessori materials that had worked so well in the past.

This time, however, they seemed to have the opposite effect.  John would settle down for a few moments, but soon he was hurting someone, mistreating a material, or being loud and abrasive in the classroom when everyone else was trying to work.  If he was working with a metal inset, he would get up from his chair at least 20 times to go interrupt others, and would react violently if I tried to guide him back to his work.

I called the dad to try to get some insight and asked him if there were any changes at home I should know about.  As is customary with him, he blamed the mom for putting negative ideas about school in John’s mind, and told me that every time John comes home after visiting his mom he is irritable and difficult to handle.  Not once did he mention that they were expecting, so I didn’t bring this up.

A week after the fruitless phone call, we celebrated another child’s birthday, and John mentioned that he would be getting a new brother and sister.  He didn’t seem upset and stated the fact very nonchalantly.  However, a few days later we were having a particularly bad day.  The children were acting up and John was leading the way.  Fed up with his behavior, I did something I have never done before to any child: I told John he was acting like a baby.

What happened next surprised me.  He grinned.  It was the biggest grin I’ve seen on a child in a long time!  He looked pleased as punch with my statement!  That’s when it hit me: he’s regressing.  He knows that his twin half-brothers got all the attention when they were born, and now he’s going to be losing his dad’s attention once again!

I really don’t know how to proceed at this point… I have a conference with John’s dad a week from now, but I don’t know how to bring up his child’s reaction to my statement, let alone the fact that the boy’s behavior is a direct result of the dad’s actions and decisions.  He can’t turn back the pregnancy, but he needs to realize how it is affecting his child.

As for John’s behavior in the classroom, I’m not quite sure what to do.  The more I treat him like a “big boy”, the more he rebels and regresses, because he wants to be the baby.  But treating him like a baby is not going to help him understand the realities of his role in life.  Maria Montessori would say that we are not psychologists, and that the only way we can lead a child to normalization is through helping him find purposeful work that he can repeat with concentration.  But how do I go about that if the child’s energy and focus are so scattered that he can’t even sit on a chair or next to a rug long enough to take a material out of its box?

Next week, it’s going to be all Practical Life, all day long for little John.  He needs a sense of purpose in his life, an anchor of stability and success in the crazy mixed-up world his adults have created for him.  I pray that he’ll find his way through scrubbing walls and washing windows.  Maybe Maria Montessori was right after all… It wouldn’t surprise me.


October 2, 2009

And Just When You Think the Lights Are On but Nobody’s Home…

A few days ago I was reviewing the sandpaper letters with a 4-year old who is interested in NOTHING else in the classroom and can spend the entire three-hour work period sitting in a chair and looking at the ground if I let him.

I pulled out the “p” and asked him to tell me a word that has the “p” sound in it.  He sat quietly for a moment, then looked up and very clearly said:


September 20, 2009

The Relativity of Right and Wrong

Five year-old Stacy and I were working with the geometric cabinet.  As we went through the language lesson involving several shapes, it became clear that she was having a hard time telling the difference between the oval and the ellipse.  Since she can read, I introduced the geometry cabinet classified cards, which consist of the following:

– Cards showing the shapes of the geometric cabinet (the shapes are in blue and the background is in yellow, just like the cabinet)

– Cards where the names of the shapes are written (ellipse, oval, curvilinear triangle, etc.)

– Cards where the definitions of the shapes are written (“an egg-shaped figure with curved lines that narrow at the top” would be the definition of oval)

– Control cards that show each blue shape with its corresponding name and definition on one long yellow card, so the child can check her work when she’s finished

I handed Stacy the card that showed the blue oval, and then invited her to find the label for the shape.  She chose the label that said “ellipse” and placed it next to the oval.  I then invited her to find the corresponding definition, and she chose the one that defined an ellipse.  Without pointing out her mistake, I gave her the card that showed the blue ellipse.  She chose the label and definition for “oval” and placed them next to the card with the elliptical shape.

At this point, she had labeled and defined an oval as an ellipse, and vice-versa.  Hoping the control cards would help her see her mistakes and understand the difference between the shapes, I invited her to check her work.  I pointed to the card that said oval, which she had placed next to the elliptical shape, and asked her to find the matching control card.

After three years in Montessori, Stacy was familiar with the use of control cards, which allow the children to check their work and make corrections without having to depend on an adult to point out mistakes (we call this “control of error”, and it is present in most authentic Montessori materials).  She shuffled through the cards, found the one that corresponded to the oval, and placed it below the cards she had paired.

I saw her eyes shifting several times from her work to the control card and back.  It was clear that, while the name and definition of her cards matched the control card, the shape on the control card (an oval) was different from the shape on her work card (an ellipse).  She repeated the process with the control card for the ellipse, and again looked from one card to the other.

“How’s it going?” I gently inquired.

“Something’s wrong,” she remarked.

“Oh?” I asked, relieved that she had found the mistake in her work.  “What’s the matter?”

Stacy looked up from her cards.  “This card,” she pointed to the oval control card, “is wrong.”

My eyebrows popped up.  “Really?” I asked, intrigued by her perspective.

She continued, unphased.  “Yeah.  If you give me a blue marker, we can change this shape,” she pointed to the oval on the control card, “to look like this.”  She pointed to the ellipse on her work cards.

I gently explained that we couldn’t color on the control cards, because they were designed to help us check our work, and asked her if she wanted to look at the cards again.  She looked back at her work and insisted that the control card was wrong.   Without pressing any further, I suggested that we put away the work because it was almost time to go home.

I didn’t dare tell her that she had made a mistake: that’s not my role as a guide.  I will simply continue to expose her to the two shapes in different situations throughout the school year, until at some point she will have her little “aha” moment.

I marvel at the strength of her convictions; discovering the world in this manner creates much more awareness and self-reliance than depending on others to show us the way, and helps us appreciate the relativity of right and wrong.

August 13, 2009


Filed under: classroom,from the child's perspective,funny,teaching — The Full Montessori @ 5:53 am
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Release, the Orb Weaver spider

Release, the Orb Weaver spider

On my way to get some pots from the schoolyard before the children arrived, I almost ran face first into a quarter-sized spider sitting in the center of her web.  As I walked by, I must have pulled one of the invisible silk threads anchoring the web to the trellis frame, for the web collapsed and the harmless Orb Weaver spider ran for cover.  

Since I had already inadvertently destroyed its home, I decided to invite it into our classroom for a while.  I wanted the children to experience nature up close and discover its beauty and usefulness.  Perhaps then they would stop acting violently against it out of fear and ignorance.

I gingerly coaxed the spider into our critter cage and as the children arrived I introduced them to our visitor.  Thirteen little ones gathered in awe around the small mesh-covered enclosure, so I told them that we would enjoy the spider’s company for the morning and would release it in the playground after lunch.  One of my five-year olds, a boy I’ll call C., suggested we name the spider “Release”, since that’s what we would do to it.  I was hesitant to give it a name, since I didn’t want the children to either a) grow attached to something that wasn’t theirs to keep, or b) give the eight-legged creature anthropomorphic qualities.  However, they insisted and I agreed.

Before starting the work period, we talked about why spiders were so important to our ecosystem, and I helped them understand that spiders only use their venom as a defensive tactic.  We talked about their role in the food chain and why we’re lucky to have them.  Most of the children then went on with their daily routine.  C., however, was enthralled with the spider, as I knew he would be.  He sat in front of the critter cage for almost an hour, exclaiming “It’s moving!” or “It’s making a web!” from time to time.  He then asked me for a book on spiders so he could study more about our visitor, and I willingly obliged.  

After lunchtime, we took the crate to the playground and I carefully released “Release” back into the bushes.  The spider scurried over the mulch to find a hiding spot as the children said their goodbyes.  Mission accomplished, they all stood up and joined the children from other classrooms who were just arriving on the playground.  Minutes later, as I stood close to the bushes, I heard C. tell a friend, “You see those bushes?  That’s where we released a South American Tarantula.”

August 8, 2009

Pushing Kids Too Hard Can be Childish

Filed under: from the child's perspective,parenting — The Full Montessori @ 9:43 am
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Here’s an interesting story from NPR.  You can listen to it or read the transcript… While I don’t agree with praise AT ALL, I do think that at the very least parents should be aware of what they choose to emphasize in their child’s life.

August 2, 2009

Sowing the Seeds of Love

Filed under: from the child's perspective,gardening,teaching — The Full Montessori @ 6:07 pm
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Last year, each classroom was assigned a small plot of land in which to supposedly grow fruits and vegetables.  I say supposedly because the only things that grew over the school year (on a total of six plots) were three carrots, four heads of lettuce, one humongous Swiss chard (that nobody harvested), a few tiny strawberries (that nobody picked), and a forest of out-of-control wild fennel, which is so loved by bees that we’ve decided to leave it alone.  

If you assume that we didn’t make an effort to plant more items, you’d be mistaken!  We carefully sowed rows of rosemary, basil, radishes, carrots and other veggies, but never got so much as a sprout for all our efforts.  The quality of the soil is quite poor, suitable only for growing succulents in our dry and warm climate.  The irrigation system doesn’t work properly and only waters certain parts of the plots, and sporadically at that.  Our fancy spinning composting bin lies ignored, a matted and dry mangle of dead fennel its only resident.  And, more than anything, the interest on the part of the guides was – I must admit – thwarted by the ever-present curricular pressures of the upper-middle class society to whom we owe our paychecks.

These past few weeks of summer school have brought us lovely weather, so I have been taking the children to our classroom’s plot in the afternoons with the excuse of “preparing” the soil.  In reality, I simply felt that we needed to be out of the classroom, breathing fresh air and flexing our muscles.  Initially,  I was not interested in preparing the soil for sowing anything, mainly because I haven’t the faintest clue about gardening and was discouraged by last year’s failed crops.  I simply gave the children spades and shovels and invited them to loosen the soil and dig out as many rocks as they could find.  

To my delight, they attacked the soil with passion, tilling and digging and for the most part avoiding any major accidents involving shovel-to-head contact.  After a few afternoons, our soil looked almost useable, our compost bin had been put to work, and we had built up a considerable pile of large rocks to one side of our plot.  The children, who on the first afternoon of gardening had hesitantly tiptoed around the plot trying to avoid getting dirty, now filed proudly and sweatily back to the classroom with dirt inside their shoes and under their fingernails.

Two weeks into our “gardening” efforts (which still consisted of a bare plot with no plans for crops of any kind), we sat around the ellipse discussing the day’s events before heading home.  When we got to the topic of the garden, a spunky 4.5-year old girl declared, “We should start a farm.”  A chorus of enthusiastic yeah’s greeted her suggestion.  “We could grow vegetables and then use them for snack and baking,” our little gardening activist continued.  

“But what if we only have 10 carrots, and we need 20 to bake a carrot cake?” she asked, suddenly concerned.  A five-year old boy chimed in: “I know!  We can take some of the other vegetables we’ll be growing, like spinach or broccoli, and trade them with another classroom that has lots of carrots!”  

As a murmur of approval traveled around the ellipse, a shiver of excitement travelled down my back.  In The Discovery of the Child, Maria Montessori reminded us that “when children come into contact with nature, they reveal their strength.”  Through her observations, she found that “children have an anxious concern for living things, and the satisfaction of this instinct fills them with delight… Nothing awakens foresight in a small child, who lives as a rule for the passing moment and without care for the morrow, so much as [taking care of plants and animals].  When he knows that… little plants will dry up if he does not water them, he binds together with a new thread of love today’s passing moments with those of the morrow.”

In that instant, a glorious opportunity to follow the children opened up before me.  I know close to nothing about gardening, but I do know that the children’s ability to develop a love of nature that will have a positive impact on the future of this planet depends in large part on my willingness to transmit this love to them in the present.  Therefore, I have armed myself with books, Internet resources, and a quartet of butternut squash seedlings that I got for free from a nice lady I found on Craigslist.  I’ve purchased broccoli and snap pea seeds, and we will experiment with growing our own vegetables from seeds when the school year begins in four weeks.  

If you have gardening tips or stories about gardening with children, I’d love to hear them!!  We need all the help we can get!

July 26, 2009

How Do You Say “Respect” in Mandarin?

The assistant teacher who started working in the classroom four weeks ago is a native Mandarin Chinese speaker, and talks with the children only in that language.  In the short time he’s been there, he has been able to bond with the summer school children because I was on vacation.  Most of the children think he doesn’t speak or understand English, and the few (older) children who doubt his monolingualism think that he only understands a few words.

When I returned to the classroom, I was pleasantly surprised to find a group of preschoolers who not only understood Mandarin, but who would spontaneously burst into song in perfectly-articulated “putong hua”.  One of their favorite games was to point to something and ask me “Zhe shi shenme?” (What is that?), to which I consistently answered “Wo bu zhi dao” (I don’t know).  After giggling at my obvious ineptitude, they would respond in Mandarin with the name of the item they were pointing to.  Ah, the joys of the absorbent mind…

Realizing the importance of what was happening in the classroom, I made it a goal to learn a few phrases in Mandarin so that I, too, could communicate with my assistant in his native tongue.  My objective was to show the children that we must respect people from all cultures and not think that because our language is spoken around the world we are exempt from widening our horizons.  Nothing irks me more than Americans who travel abroad and make no effort to communicate in the language of the land they’re visiting.  I’d be darned if my students would grow up to behave in such a disrespectful manner.

One day, as the children and I sat around the elipse in preparation for lunchtime, I composed a sentence in shaky and ill-pronounced Mandarin to inform the assistant of a change in our routine.  Realizing my struggle, one of the children asked me why I didn’t speak to the assistant in English.  I replied that he did not speak that language, and I was about to say that in any case, it was important to make an effort to speak to foreigners in their language if possible.  However, I was interrupted by a precocious five-year old  American boy who stated that “you should always try to speak to people in their language, it’s the respectful thing to do.”

The assistant teacher and I looked at each other, our eyes wide and our hearts swelling with pride.  The assistant looked at this child and softly thanked him in Chinese.

The boy nodded curtly with the dignity of someone ten times his age and gave the appropriate reply in perfect, three-week old Mandarin: “Bu ke qi, Mr. Chang”.

July 22, 2009

Of the Teaching Profession

Filed under: from the child's perspective,teaching — The Full Montessori @ 2:52 am
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I had a conversation with a five-year old girl today while I was sitting and writing some observations. It went a little something like this:

Girl: Did you decide to be a teacher when you were a kid?
Me: No, I decided to become a teacher when I was an adult.
Girl: Oh, so you became a teacher instead of doing a lot of work.

Another student, a little boy who’s a real handful, once told me he wanted to become a teacher. Swelling with pride, I replied, “Really?” To which he answered, “Yes, because then you get to tell people what to do.”

Is that how children really see their teachers, as people who do very little work and tell others what to do? I remember viewing my teachers as paragons of knowledge, and if they told us what to do it was because rules were necessary for the functioning of our classroom society. I remind myself that respect breeds respect, and in every interaction I strive to treat the children with the respect they deserve as individuals and human beings. What more can be done?

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