Captured Moments

We have a few labels put out in our garden to help children identify some of the plants growing in the outer environment.

Little wooden strips painted and mounted on wooden stakes, thrust into the ground. But like most things these labels have come to have many uses.

In the past few months, we have had 3 children from the primary environment discover reading through them! A stroll in the garden, has witnessed them sound out each letter on the label and discover that they can read!

A couple of days ago, a child pulled out a label from the earth. Upon being requested to place it back, he obliged but only after he sounded each letter and realised that the label said, ‘pumpkin’!

He had discovered reading!

You can imagine his delight. After that hand in hand with an adult he went to every label and read it, his grin getting broader and broader.

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Working with children it is all about ‘teachable’ moments and sometimes they are hard to miss!

We sat down on the ground, still damp after a recent spell of rains, and with a stick I carefully wrote out a word. He read it, though ‘devoured’ is more like how it was taken. The next thing we knew we were surrounded by a group of children, all wanting a ‘word’ for themselves!

There were several beginning readers, as well as children who had not yet discovered reading for themselves. Each one got a word. The readers read the words for the non-readers, while the latter carefully observed, as their friends de-coded the squiggles in the mud. Over and over again, the children shouted in excitement, “I want to read” , “Give me a word”,  “Write ‘nutella’ for me” and it went on and on!

While carefully drawing the words on the damp ground, I thought of Sylvia Ashton Warner, an educator who worked with Maori children and often took them to the river side to give them words in the sand! (you can download her book titled ‘teacher’, here)

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Now this has become a game that we sometimes play when outdoors and the children have dubbed it, ‘word, word’. :)

So how does this happen? How do children ‘discover’ reading, rather than being ‘taught’ reading?

Any note on reading cannot begin without a mention of the child’s sensitivity to language between birth to 6 years. A child passes through special times in her life when she easily incorporates a particular ability into her schema if allowed to practice it exhaustively during this time. Montessori called the unique sensitivities of young children ‘sensitive periods’. Her understanding of sensitive periods has now been confirmed by modern science and even popular culture, with Time magazine calling it ‘windows of opportunity’. The child ages birth to six years old passes through three significant sensitive periods; those for order, movement and language.

Reading in the Montessori method, is a synthesis of many individual strands that a child ties together for herself.

The path to reading looks something like this:

All through their time in the primary Montessori environment, children are given the tools to build a rich and precise vocabulary. The environment itself is one in which a love for language should be in the ‘air’. Good quality poetry and books should be read to the children and made available in the reading corner. A love and respect for books should be modelled by the adults.

Children imbibe the left to right orientation required for reading, through engagement with the exercises of practical life. As they spoon grain from one container to another, pour water from a jug into wee glasses and cups, prepare their places to make dough or flower arrangements, they not only gain in independence but in effect are working on the left to right orientation required for reading. The step-by-step procedure in a presentation, helps children indirectly gain the ability to sequence. Again, another pre-requisite for reading. They are also gaining the ability to concentrate.

Through their work with the sensorial materials, they gain the ability to compare and contrast their sensorial impressions. They hone their visual discrimination skills, required to discriminate between the shapes of letters for reading.

Then there are the ‘sound games’ or ‘oral phonetic analysis’. A simple game played with the youngest children where they practice recognising individual sounds in a word. They are able to pick out beginning sounds, ending sounds, middle sounds and finally sequence all the individual sounds in a word. Through these games, they discover that words are made of individual sounds and enjoy picking out sounds in the words that they encounter in their daily lives.

Children are introduced to the sandpaper letters where they trace the letters over and over again. Through this they connect the squiggle to the sound it represents. They associate sound with symbol. Indirectly they are building a motor memory of the symbol for writing, which will come later.

And then there is the moveable alphabet. A child builds words with cut outs of the letters of the alphabet. They carefully sound out the individual sounds of the word they wish to build and then identify the corresponding symbol and place them in sequence on their mat. Can they read what they have built at this time? No, not yet, but this too is an important step towards reading which is yet to come.

With exposure to all of this, by and large most children, tie these different strands together and voila! you have reading – reading, as a point of arrival!

Reading ‘discovered’ rather than ‘taught’ is a joyful process and the child can truly say, “I have taught myself to read!”

“It is the adult who makes learning to read and write difficult when he or she approaches the two as subjects to be conquered, rather than discoveries to be made.” ~ Maria Montessori

Poem In My Pocket

It always surprises me when I hear people tell me that they dislike poetry. Honestly though I have never heard a child say that. It is usually adults. Somewhere along the long and winding road, poetry quietly exits from our lives…poetry that, I am certain, was a companion to us in our younger years.

A few months ago, we at school,  stumbled across an idea that we fell in love with. It’s called ‘Poem In Your Pocket’ and is hosted by the New York city government and it goes something like this – write your own poem or borrow one from your favourite poet; just make sure to carry a poem in your pocket to share with your friends, family, classmates, and colleagues.

What a wildly delightful idea! Instantly we knew this was something we had to do. Poems were already gifts that we gave each other at school, but here was a chance to extend it to ALL in our community, including our parents.

Now, most of us at school aren’t really into organising events. We prefer the non-fussy, spontaneous approach…people coming together, bringing with them their enthusiasm. It has always worked for us and what a fabulous day ‘Poem In Your Pocket’ turned out to be.

Here’s what happened …

All children and adults at school brought a poem along with them in their pockets. As opportunity arose, usually in quiet moments, we read the poems to each other. Older children who were readers, stepped in to help younger children … little groups of 2’s, 3’s and 4’s spontaneously formed in the playground, during lunch time, in the reading corner, on steps, to read poems together.

Sharing in quiet moments

Sharing in quiet moments

The elementary children recited their poems for the school.

Reciting a self written poem, 'The Sun Serpent'

Reciting a self written poem, ‘The Sun Serpent’

The elementary take a bow

The elementary take a bow

When the parents came to pick their children from school, they came with treasure in their pockets. All of us walked out into the street and read to each other.

v sharing

Sharing all around!

sa sharing

m sharing

It was a day filled with delight and wonder!

And if you don’t believe me, here’s testament to what it felt like!

happy compere

Here’s to Opening and Upward
by E. E. Cummings
(poem brought in by one of the parents)
here’s to opening and upward, to leaf and to sap
and to your(in my arms flowering so new)
self whose eyes smell of the sound of rain
and here’s to silent certainly mountains; and to
a disappearing poet of always, snow
and to morning; and to morning’s beautiful friend
twilight(and a first dream called ocean)and
let must or if be damned with whomever’s afraid
down with ought with because with every brain
which thinks it thinks,nor dares to feel(but up
with joy; and up with laughing and drunkenness)
here’s to one undiscoverable guess
of whose mad skill each world of blood is made
(whose fatal songs are moving in the moon

 

Gathering Leaves

It’s the season for the ‘jungee badam’ tree to shed it’s leaves, once again.

This is the time when we gather the beautiful fallen leaves – red, brown, ochre, burnt orange and russet and string them into all manner of curiosities.

There are pouches secretly carrying a tiny rock and seed or hair wreaths encircling happy heads. Bracelets are fashioned and among the more adventurous – belts, crowns and collars!

Pouches, belts, bracelets and wreaths .... ... hair wreaths ...... crowns

... belt ...

v - wreath

... more belts ...

v collar

Gathering Leaves

~ Robert Frost

Spades take up leaves

No better than spoons,

And bags full of leaves

Are light as balloons.

I make a great noise

Of rustling all day

Like rabbit and deer

Running away.

But the mountains I raise

Elude my embrace,

Flowing into my arms

And into my face.

How Does Our Garden Grow? – Part Three

Here is the long overdue update on our gardening endeavours at school.

It has now been a couple of months from when we planted our veggies and some flowers and it’s been a mixed bag of results.

Our raised boxes are doing well. Even though they had to be moved a few weeks ago, the plants have re-cooperated and are lush and green.

In fact we have already had a harvest of string beans. The children cooked them with fresh dill and radish leaves from the garden. The harvest was not big enough to feed the entire school so we added some store bought carrots. The result was a tasty treat of buttery-garlicky bean and carrot salad! The fact that it was from our garden made the salad all the more delicious.

harvesting dill

harvesting dill

A week ago we were able to harvest enough dill to send some home with the elementary children as well!

Dill to take home ...

Dill to take home …

... all packed and labelled

… all packed and labelled

The gourds, yam, sunflowers, morning glory, pumpkin and other plants look happy and healthy.

Under the Teepee

Under the Teepee

The news is not so good with the keyhole gardening patch of the children though!

ALL the seeds that had germinated died due to heavy rains. We put up a canopy above the patch to provide some protection but it came too late. The only plants to survive were the turmeric and lemon grass. Now, we are going to have to start the planting  all over again!

Fortunately, the failed experiment with the keyhole garden patch of the elementary children hasn’t really dampened their enthusiasm.

Instead they have become a little more interested in ‘how’ a plant is looking; are the leaves yellowing, is the soil too wet, is the stem bent? Maybe the timely harvest of the beans helped.

mulching the keyhole garden

mulching the keyhole garden

It has been interesting to observe the children’s responses to the garden over the last couple of months.

Many children have become better observers of what is growing around them. A new bud, a flower that has just bloomed or a tiny fruit that is appearing now catches their attention. They have seen day after day the bean flower’s ovary slowly elongate into a fruit. The first purple bud of the morning glory drew much attention. Funnily the big, bright yellow sunflower growing right next to the sandpit where most of the children play, went unnoticed!!!

sunflower

Today a child guided me by the hand to show me a new ‘chilli’ that she spied growing. It was in fact the tender shoot of yam, all curled up,  just emerging from the soil. This was enough to spark off a walk through the outdoor environment. A group of us walking about and noticing more keenly all that grew around us … the massive banana flower, the young and shiny new leaves, the little dot of a chilli just emerging …

“…what most develops a feeling of nature is the cultivation of the living things, because they by their natural development give back far more than they receive, and show something like infinity in their beauty and variety.”

~ Dr. Maria Montessori

Earthworms are Superheroes

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All too often children get mixed messages about nature.

On one hand adults romanticise nature to children and expound liberally about how important it is to ‘save’ mother earth and we wax lyrical about the beauty of nature. On the other hand we all too often prohibit them from playing in the rain and slush, use the word ‘dirt’ synonymously for ‘soil’ and cringe when we chance upon a ‘bug’ or worm or ‘creepy-crawly’. When a young child instinctively bends down to pick up a tiny creature she comes across we hasten to get it out of their hands!

The fact is children come unconditioned about the creatures they share this planet with and slowly take on the prevailing attitudes of those around them. This is an important evolutionary step. It is how we learn about our world from the experiences of others. We learn what to stay away from and what to seek. In times long past it was the line between life and death itself!

A parent who delights in the simplest things of nature usually has a child who delights in nature too. I have a young friend, just past 3 years who LOVES ‘bugs’. She enjoys looking at them, handling them and talking about them. They make her world interesting and magical. You don’t have to look far to find out where this fascination comes from. You just have to meet her mother!

Upon hearing the word, ‘worms’ most people cringe, right?

Walk into school and you will find an entirely different mind set when it comes to earthworms! They inspire awe and the children are truly fascinated by them. The child who has found an earthworm wriggling about on a cloudy, rainy day, feels s/he has chanced upon true treasure.

The internal anatomy of the earthworm has been sewn onto cloth and made into  soft toys with the shiniest beads used to denote their 5 hearts. Clay models have been fashioned, poems have been written and thick books completed, paying homage to the earthworm.

They are the ‘new’ super heroes at school.

Upon hearing about the great work that earthworms do one child pondered, “Just like earthworms don’t know the important work they do for earth, do we humans also not know some great work that we are doing?”

Earthworms

by Valerie Worth

Garden soil,

Spaded up,

Gleams with

Gravel-glints,

Mica-sparks,

and

Bright wet

Glimpses of

Earthworms

Stirring beneath:

Put on palm,

Still rough

with crumbs,

They roll and

Glisten in the sun

As fresh

As new rubies

Dug out of

Deepest earth.

Cosmic Education – nourishment for a lifetime

touching-the-universe

I recently gave the first great lesson – the story of the universe to the elementary children. This is a period of great excitement, questions and ponderings for the children and well, for me too.  I am always especially excited for the children who are hearing this epic tale for the first time. An entire universe is unlocked and ready for their explorations.

The entire Montessori ‘curriculum’ during the elementary years is dubbed as ‘Cosmic Education’. Cosmic Education connects all players in the Cosmic Drama, both animate, as well as inanimate. It is an opportunity for the child to unify themselves with the very cosmos!

Lofty ideals these, but Montessori is ALL about lofty ideals. The primary aged child has the gift of developing a ‘unified self’, the elementary aged child has the gift of ‘unifying with the cosmos’ and the adolescent, ‘unifying with ones fellow beings’.

Each and every year I see these stupendous ideals fleshed out into practical experiences that guide the children on their path.

This year, soon after I presented the story of the universe to the children I saw the movie ‘Agora‘. It’s the fictionalised story of the life of Hypatia- the Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher who lived during the 4th century CE. Living through times of religious strife, Hypatia managed to hold on to her beliefs and till the very end dedicate her life to probing the secrets of the universe. At a time when the mere thought that the workings of the cosmos was anything less of pure perfection was considered heresy, Hypatia anticipated that the earth went around the sun in an elliptical orbit. Now an ellipse was considered an ‘impure’ shape – a base figure as compared to the ‘perfect’ circle, where the centre is constantly equidistant from its diameter. Hypatia was a woman far beyond her times.

While viewing the movie (which had it’s good and bad points, but this is not a film review) I couldn’t help but see a parallel between Hypatia and the elementary child. Both probe the secrets of the cosmos and ‘touch’ it with their gift of imagination, are sensitive to issues of fairness, cannot help but ask BIG, philosophical questions and attempt to find answers guided by their reasoning mind.

I often meet adults who have completely lost touch with the child they once were. Philosophical questions, the awesomeness of the universe and all the many splendours out there, leave them unmoved while they plod along life’s path miserable in their day-to-day existence.

My hope is that children who have received cosmic education will, no matter how old they get, always have the child they once were alive in them. No matter what difficulties life throws in their path, and there surely will be many challenges, they will never cease to feel wonder at this truly majestic universe that we inhabit, never cease to ask questions bigger than themselves and never fear to look for answers.

In short, my hope is that the Cosmic Education they receive will last them a lifetime.

“Cosmic Education is intended to help each of us search for our cosmic task as a species and as individuals. To do this, we must understand ourselves in context. It is only against the background of our place in the universe, our relationships with other living organisms, and our understanding of human unity within cultural diversity, that we can attempt to answer the question, ‘Who am I?’”

~ Micheal Duffy and D’Neil Duffy – Cosmic Education – Children of the Universe

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

~ William Blake

School Culture

United_Hands1

This past week I have been thinking about the culture of a school. Through all my visits of various schools I can safely say that no two schools are exactly alike. There may be threads of commonality but each school is unique and an expression of many variables.

A school culture is formed intentionally and often times, unintentionally by all the people who are a part of it. Some of the culture of a school is visible: the care with which the physical space is arranged, the attention to little details, the daily schedule, and so on but most of it is invisible. It resides not in  a physical space or time but inside each one of us who are a part of the school. It defines how we think about ourselves and each other, how decisions are made, what kinds of ideas and actions are given importance, how we do our work, what our shared expectations and values are and these become the  norms of the school.

A school culture not only impacts teachers and other staff but research shows that it has a huge impact on children as well. Well,no surprises there!

Often we say that a school is only as good as it’s teachers. But today I have been thinking if the reverse is true as well?

While the culture of a school is a result of the mind-sets of the people in the school, inversely it also ‘shapes’ the people in the school; the value given to ones work, our idea of ourselves and each other. I have seen it have a big impact on teachers, especially teachers who are just starting out.

School culture can be the wind beneath a teachers wings or the strings that bind and keep her from reaching her full potential and truly following the child.

The thing with school culture is that it is dynamic and forever changing. Each stage of development brings with it defining moments : new challenges and questions that test the kind of culture that exists and the path the school will take in the future.