Montessori Moments

August 16, 2009

Following the Child: The case of the bowl of berries

Filed under: classroom,maria montessori,teaching — The Full Montessori @ 2:26 pm
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As Montessori guides, we are reminded time and again by Montessori’s books, our trainers, and mentors to “follow the child”.  In theory, this phrase requires the guide to observe the child’s behavior, in order to get clues about his developmental requirements.  Then, she can manipulate the prepared environment (give a presentation, make a new material, etc.) as a means of helping the child satisfy this need.  (Note: It is the child’s interaction with the environment, and not the adult’s ability to “teach” the material, which will ultimately allow internal growth to take place).

The theory sounds straightforward: observe, put the child in touch with the environment, step back.  Repeat.  

The practice, however, is more daunting… 

In the classroom, I work with a boy who’s currently two months shy of turning four.  He came to me exactly one year ago, a crying toddler not quite three.  His parents are Asian, and I assumed they spoke to him in their native tongue at home, so I was not surprised to find that the child could not communicate with me in English.  I began working with him as I would with any child who has had very limited exposure to English: I presented basic nomenclature, I spoke slowly in short but complete sentences, and I used a lot of body language to accompany my words.  

The child cried for majority of the first week.  When he wasn’t crying, he was either stacking materials that were not meant for stacking (like boxes or bottles), or running around and touching every material on the shelf.  While most new children (even the 2.5-year olds) very quickly grasp the concept of waiting to touch a material until it is presented to them, this child, let’s call him S., did not seem to understand or give importance to my repeated attempts at establishing the rule.

The most interesting part of his behavior was his almost pathological sense of order.  If his lunchbox was taken out of the car before he was, he would have a meltdown.  A minute change in routine, such as going to the bathroom before lunch instead of after lunch, would have him crying for hours.  Arriving late to school, while difficult to handle for most children, was downright agonizing for this little boy.  His behavior was more reminiscent of a toddler than a three-year old, and I could see marked toddler qualities in all other areas of his development.

Apart from being quite small for his age, one of the most prominent (and exhausting) behaviors was his inability and/or unwillingness to follow even the simplest rules, making it very difficult to have him in a Primary classroom.  He was still completely non-verbal several months into the school year, despite my efforts, and it was obvious to me that not only could he not speak English, but he could not understand it either. At one point, several months after his third birthday, the school was planning a field trip.  During a conference with his parents, I informed them that one of them would have to accompany us on the field trip to make sure that S. was able to follow the rules.  I told the parents that they would have to translate the rules into their language, and the father responded: “Well, he speaks as much English as he does our language.”

The blood left my face, my stomach did a backflip, and I realized that something needed to change in this child’s life.  I began working with him to develop his language skills in a way that I’ll describe in a later post; one year later the child understands most of the things I tell him, and is beginning to form simple phrases based on the interactions he’s had with me in the classroom.

Ours has been a difficult relationship, not aided by the fact that I had 22 other children to “follow”.  Many times, I would confuse this little boy’s “inner teacher” (still remarkably strong and evident, another indication of his toddler-like tendencies) with mischief.  Other times, the mischief was real, buoyed by his inability to express his feelings, control his temper, or find material in the Primary environment that would satisfy his toddler needs.

Towards the end of the school year, most of the children were now working independently and I had more time to step back and observe.  For months, S. had been entering the classroom every morning, heading straight to the children’s assigned shoe cubbies, and moving shoes around.  The children would come to me to complain, fed up by their classmate’s erratic behaviors, and I would march over to where he was, bark at him in frustration to fix the shoes, and walk away to put out another fire.  One day, at my wit’s end with this behavior and not knowing how to solve the problem, I grabbed a notebook and pen and sat down to observe.  S. came in, made a beeline for the shoe cubbies, and started moving the shoes around.  I bit my tongue to prevent myself from barking orders, and instead wrote as quickly and objectively as possible.  What happened next baffled me…

Having moved almost every pair of shoes, S. then took a pair and purposefully looked at each cubby.  I quickly realized that he was looking at the label taped to each cubby, which had each child’s name and a small picture of a particular animal (to make it easier for non-readers to identify their cubby).  When he found the cubby that corresponded to the pair of shoes he was holding, he would remove the shoes that were currently occupying the cubby, and would insert the correct pair.  He would then repeat the exercise with the shoes he was holding.  He did this over and over, with more than 12 pairs of shoes, and he ALWAYS put the shoes in the right cubby.  I held my breath as he put back the last pair, stood up with a contented half-smile on his cherubic face, and walked to where I was.  “Fix”, he said, pointing at the shoes.  A huge knot formed in my throat.  This child knew what he needed, could not find it in the materials, and was following his inner teacher.  Why did it take me so long to see this?

Fast forward four months… S. is now two months shy of turning four.  

On Monday we received our floral bouquet for the week, and the children quickly went about decorating the classroom.  The assorted bouquet had a handful of branches with small red berries.  A couple of times the children had found these berries on the floor and I had asked them to throw them in the trash.  One day, S. discovered the berries in the arrangement and began to pick one or two each time he passed by.  This action started to get on my nerves, mostly because the uppity adult that lives inside my head kept reminding me that the berries were NOT for picking but for making floral arrangements!  

As I was about to open my mouth to reprimand him for picking the berries, an image of the cubby experience flashed in my mind.  I quickly closed my mouth, stood up, picked up the heavy vase and gently invited him to a kitchen table.  I put the vase on the table and placed a bowl next to it.  As he sat in the chair, his eyes filled with curiosity, I squatted down, silently picked a berry using the pincer grip and dropped it gingerly into the bowl.  I repeated the procedure, looked at him, and invited him to continue.  Without a word, he turned to the berries and went to work.

spicI quietly and briskly herded all the children who had gathered to watch the bizarre presentation, and helped everyone find purposeful work.  As I gave a presentation across the room, I watched S. with bated breath out of the corner of my eye.  When the bowl had filled up with berries, he stood up and took it in his two hands.  I prayed that he wouldn’t walk over to a classmate and pour the bowl of berries onto his head, for this was the type of impulsive silliness that had gotten him in trouble in the past.  

However, S. simply walked to the trash can and emptied the bowl.  He then walked back to the table, sat down, and continued to pick.  This went on for at least 20 minutes.  When he was done, he carried the (very heavy) vase back to its original table, put his bowl away, and approached me.  I squatted down to meet him at eye level, and this normally impulsive and defiant little boy stretched out his arms and said: “hug”.

I wrapped him in my arms, overcome with emotion by his simple way of thanking me for following him.

In The Formation of Man, Dr. Montessori reminds us that “…the child constructs himself, that he has a teacher within himself and that this inner teacher also follows a programme and a technique of education, and that we adults by acknowledging this unknown teacher may enjoy the privilege and good fortune of becoming its assistants and faithful servants by helping it with our co-operation.”


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.

Good Job Epidemic

Filed under: montessori education,parenting — The Full Montessori @ 6:57 am
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Every week we give a tour of the school to prospective students and their parents.  It’s interesting to see how parents interact with their children; I’ve gotten so good at observing parents that I can tell within five minutes of meeting them whether they are permissive pushovers, strict authoritarians, or savvy negotiators.  

However, regardless of their parenting style, all parents have one thing in common: their need to bolster their child’s self-esteem.  For some reason, they got it into their heads that it is their responsibility to remind children of how wonderful and special they are, and that by so doing, they will create children who are self-assured and immune to criticism.  The way that parents go about performing this “critical” task is what I have termed the “good job epidemic”, and it accomplishes exactly the opposite of what its goal is.

On one particular occasion, a Chinese mother and her cute three-year old daughter were following me into the playground.  As I gave my spiel on our outdoor activities, little Shirley ran to a child-sized drinking fountain set up precisely so children can have easy access to water.  As Shirley drank contentedly, the mother looked at me anxiously and asked, “Is that water safe to drink??”  

I felt like replying, “Well, the fountain is connected to our sewage pipes but the children seem to love the taste of the water.”  I resisted the urge and nodded with a smile.  The mom looked back at her daughter and called out, “Good job, Shirley!”

Now, seriously… Good job?  What great, challenging feat did the child do that merited recognition from an adult?  The next time Shirley drinks from a fountain, and her mother is not there to tell her she’s doing a good job, will she feel like a failure?  How will she develop an internal compass if her mother is always present, passing judgement on what she considers “good”?  And should Shirley really care what her mother thinks?

I could go on and on, but I think Alfie Kohn puts it best in this article:

Not only does he describe the problem clearly, but he also offers easy and sensible alternatives that will achieve the results parents are looking for.

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!

Freedom of Choice

Filed under: funny — The Full Montessori @ 9:08 am

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?

July 19, 2009

Back-to-School Jitters

Filed under: back to school,classroom,teaching — The Full Montessori @ 12:33 am
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Exactly one year ago, I began my career as a Montessori guide. Armed with a year of intensive theoretical schooling and hundreds of hours of observations and practice sessions, I entered the classroom excited and confident. My composure lasted about ten minutes.

During my first days as a guide, I was struck by the exhaustion I experienced at all levels: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. You might look at a Montessori classroom towards the end of the year and see the teacher moving calmly as the children go about their work with focus and diligence, but in reality the first few weeks of school are utter and complete chaos.

I remember dashing across the room just in time to grab a 2.5-year old who was scampering up a shelf, and then swinging back around to stop a 3-year old from slamming a fishbowl on the floor (I was too late, but the fish survived). Then there’s the constant crouching and stooping to interact with the children at eye level and show them how to use materials. (We call it “giving presentations”, and it involves either perching on a little chair, sitting cross-legged on the floor, or hunching over a knee-high table).

The crying of the new children is incessant, and those who aren’t howling are speaking loudly so they can be heard above the chaos. I’ll never forget standing in the teacher’s kitchen and opening a cupboard to get a glass. I was confronted with an array of OTC painkillers; it seems each teacher has her drug of choice for coping with the pounding headaches that characterize those first hectic weeks.

Apart from the physical challenges, you become mentally exhausted trying to remember 24 names, 24 personalities, assorted food allergies, 300+ presentations, a dozen children’s songs, and to whom you showed what material. After the children leave for the day, the phone calls begin. Two dozen parents, anxious to know how their child’s first day of school went, overwhelm the phone lines. My favorite line to parents: “Oh, no, Johnny stopped crying as soon as he entered the classroom.”

Emotionally, the first week of school is a roller coaster ride. Your heart goes out to the tiny ones who are crying, and you remember how it felt to be left alone by your parents in an unfamiliar environment. You rack your brain to find the right material to charm one child; just as her cries subside and she takes an interest in a piece of work, a little boy across the room remembers that mommy isn’t there, and belts out a plaintive wail. You look around the classroom and ask yourself if you have what it takes to deal with the day-to-day challenges of the profession, such as cleaning vomit, wiping noses, and singing “The Wheels on the Bus” for the 435th time.

The part that wears one out the most, though, is the constant self-analysis (or, as Maria Montessori called it, spiritual preparation): Am I allowing the children to reach their full potential? Am I guiding or am I teaching? Did I present that material too late? Are my movements slow and concise enough to leave clear imprints in the child’s mind? Why didn’t I become an accountant?

There comes a moment, normally a few weeks into the school year, when all of this madness becomes worthwhile. It usually starts out with something simple like squeezing a sponge into a bucket. As you kneel on the wet floor with the child solemnly sitting by your side, your eyes meet. You squeeze the sponge and make a funny face. The child, who until then had hovered near you wide-eyed and hesitant, looks deep into your eyes and emits a laugh that comes from her soul. In that brief moment, the chaos of the classroom falls away and all that matters is that golden bond, that light that sparks when two souls meet. The child understands that the teacher is someone she can trust, someone who is coming from a place of love. The teacher, in turn, knows that her true work as a guide can begin.

As I prepare to return to work tomorrow, I write these words to remind myself to trust. I will trust that I have the physical strength to get through each day, the mental acuity to remain sharp and focused, the emotional maturity to see the big picture, and the spiritual insight to learn from my mistakes. Above all, I will trust the child, the Method, and the knowledge that I don’t walk alone.

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