Integrity of Curriculum

Many schools consciously strive to build processes and structures that honour children and their learning. More often than not, however, curriculum is seen as separate. Loftier ideals are the backdrop against which we continue to teach ‘subjects’ or ‘content’.

Montessori education digresses from this oversight. What we present, is as important as how we present.

The curriculum itself embodies the nature of the child. Moreover, it is intuitive and flexible . It can align itself to broader developmental stages of children, as well as, to the infinite variety that comes with each individual. All children forge their own unique path through the curriculum.

The curriculum seeks to answer our children’s deepest questions. It ‘holds’ them as they construct an understanding of themselves, each other and their world.

For the young child the prepared environment, both psychological and physical, is pinnacle. This is the very basis from which children safely explore their physical and social environments. Walking this path with them, is a responsive and steadfast adult.

The curriculum for the young 3 to 6 child, supports their desire for physical independence, an understanding of their immediate experiences and nurtures their stirrings of social life.

It helps the young child gain in skill, which they go on to use as keys to navigate their world and build their very core. Often these keys may seem mundane and all too commonplace to adult eyes but in truth they are indeed golden keys.

Think of the typical scene in Montessori environments, of a young child grating a carrot. This act of grating a carrot is in fact an act of independence. The child can independently get themselves a snack whenever they sense their hunger. As their abilities expand they use these skills to build community. Think of the child grating a carrot and then sharing it with a peckish friend. The act of grating a carrot carries process, involvement, self direction, self reliance and opportunities for building community.

As children continue through their elementary years they become well-equipped with the epic tales we love to tell. Tales that satisfy their need to understand the very cosmos around them and find their spot within it. They realise that their story is connected to the very beginnings of time.

They learn that the carbon in their bones, is the carbon of stars and is the same carbon of beetle’s wings. The stories tell them how the gift of their backbone came from will-o-wisps of jelly floating in Cambrian seas. They find fellowship with Lucy and trace their home back to the savannahs of Africa. Each time a child writes a letter or numeral she understands that the marks made, carry a story of merchants, priests and kings.

Within these deep time stories children connect details of themselves and their explorations. They build an ever-widening picture of the universe and over time they see that everything is inter-connected.

The story they ultimately weave is indeed precious and will shape their view of themselves and the world.

The curriculum for the adolescent supports their quest for their place in wider society.

The adolescent works on the land, engages in economic activity and pursues creative activities that express his uniqueness. Importantly, the curriculum takes the adolescent out into society as an authentic contributor.

The curriculum balances their need to assert their individuality with a desire to belong to a community.

Our children’s work is indeed stupendous, inspired work … work that will eventually draw out the very best of being human.

The curriculum that scaffolds our work should be life affirming by aligning itself to the deepest nature of our children.

Anything less is unjustifiable.

Strange Times

In a flash we go from the familiar to knee deep in uncharted waters. No time to orient ourselves. Overnight our schools close; in a handful of days from there we are asked to gather our young and infirm, lock ourselves up and that now, to leave our homes for anything other than essentials, is a punishable offence. We are told we are fighting a war from our living rooms. Tragedy unfolds in this complex and troubled country. Thousands of people stranded between homelessness and starvation. Trips to the grocery store are laced with guilt.

And in a bizarre twist, 10 days of lockdown brings hornbills to Bombay and peacocks to the terraces of Bangalore. The night sky I look up at, is the night sky of my childhood.

As I try to navigate this strange new world, there is enough time to ponder about what led us here. COVID 19 has highlighted what scientists and sentinels have been hollering about. Our lifestyles have become unsustainable and out of touch. We need to make big changes at policy and systemic levels.

As an educator I look on as the teachers in many parts of the world, scramble to put learning online – an oxymoron for Montessorians, especially when it comes to younger children. Learning is child directed, hands-on and visceral.

In India we were 3 weeks away from our summer break. No need to take learning online. No need to do anything but put one foot in front of the other, no need to ….. and then the messages start coming. We need to ‘homeschool’, we need to get our children onto online classes, we need to keep them engaged, we need to …. We need to make big changes at systemic levels and education is one of them.

Let us look at learning. It is natural. It is something we humans cannot help but do. It is like breathing. But when we lose trust things start to close in. It is not news that we lost trust in our children to be natural, active learners a long time ago.

Children are learning ALL THE TIME. It might not be what we want them to learn, nor when and often, they do not even look like they are learning  and yet they are – ALL THE TIME.

These are strange days that are screaming that our way forward is through more heart, more independence, more quiet, more understanding of ourselves first, and then others too and mostly, truly knowing in our depths that EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED.

What we do not need is more text books, more work sheets, more bells and timetables and grades and assessments and walking the straight and narrow and adjusting to a cookie cutter world of success and failure and aspiration for the material.

We need to make different choices.

Peace Education

Soon The Earth School founded by myself and my dear friend and partner Esme Davis, will be 10 years old!

It is time to take stock.

If we were to sum up the essence of The Earth School in 2 words it would be ‘peace education’. Children who are fully accepted for themselves and supported in their explorations find peace within them and go on to make up a peaceful society.

The proof is in the pudding though and given that the pudding is still baking, we turn our sights to small occurrences that reveal that peace education is at work. The ‘easy to miss’ occurrences that are sometimes sweet (And Oh! There is such sweetness with children) and often times occurrences that appear to be a 1000 miles away from peace, for our children oftentimes, practice making peace by engaging in conflict!

The first time a young child is able to articulate  how she is feeling to a guide, (I am feeling sad now, please sit with me) or an older child takes ownership for his actions while being insightful and gentle with his folly (“I destroyed that because I was feeling jealous. I really should apologize”)

When an entire school community rises up to welcome the youngest entrants to school. By encouraging them with smiles and greetings, keeping an eye out for them and helping them with their belongings.

It is when an older child feels comfortable and safe in our community to celebrate herself on her birthday and writes about her own advances from her first year of life to.her ninth! A birthday celebration becomes a performance piece … a deeply authentic one.

Where an adults love for poetry is supported to become a whole school ‘poem in your pocket day’. Children and parents linger to share poetry with each other.

When a parent body trusts the school enough to support them in their policy of having 2 hours of free play everyday for all children from ages 3 to 12! After a year no child is recommended for Occupational Therapy!

When a child is struggling with reading, writing and arithmetic but is still frequently sought after by peers to help with all manner of drawing, building and problem solving in the environment.

When a child feels the joy of giving a presentation to a peer and with her thumbs up, gestures to an absorbed friend, and whispers to the guide “She is working so nicely!”

This, my friends, is peace education at work!

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.

IMG-20131029-00349

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 ‘junglee 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