School Culture

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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.

Less Is More

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Having made several visits to various Montessori material manufacturers over the last month, I have noticed a marked increase in the range of ‘supplementary’ material that is on offer.

Most of these materials are inessential, silly baubles that serve to detract rather than enrich the child’s work. Moreover, they seem to be carelessly made, using uninspiring material. Often times they also convey misleading information.

In addition to the ‘supplementary’ material, there are a host of materials that were previously hand made by the teacher – reading material, nomenclature cards, math charts and so on. Though the store bought materials are ‘shiny’ and so much more convenient for the adult, I couldn’t help but observe that the connection between the hand and the material had been instantly severed.

The teacher made material is a slow cooked meal, while the store bought materials are fast food!

From what little I know of market economics, there is obviously a demand for this supply, which I have observed steadily increase over the last few years. Take it one logical step further and it means that there are many Montessori schools out there that are placing these materials on their shelves and having children work with them.

I am a Montessori purist. I haven’t always been this way, but as my understanding of the child and the method grew and as I gained more experience, I found myself becoming more and more of a purist. The open ended nature of the material and the connections between them are so cohesive that it is only rarely that I find the need to ‘create’ a material. When this happens it is usually in response to an individual child or children rather than to the whole group.  These materials rarely, if ever, stay on the shelf through the year. Again, these materials are more often for the elementary aged child.

This is not to say that the method and our understanding does not change. Of course it does and should. Montessori always said that her work had come only so far and it is was now for the others to take it forward. And I believe it has changed. These changes however need to be guided by the deeper principles of child development and need to be well thought out, improvements.

Every material that is added has the potential to take away from another. Also, as Barry Schwartz discovered a complete lack of choice leads to demotivation and reduced involvement, while on the other hand, excessive choice serves to decrease satisfaction and happiness.

There is a golden mean. It serves us well to remember the Montessori principle – ‘give only what is necessary and sufficient’

Here is an article by Angeline Lillard, “How important Are Montessori Materials” that reflects on staying true to the original Montessori material vs adding supplementary materials into the classroom.

 Excessive quantity of the educative material; may dissipate the attention, render the exercises with the objects mechanical and cause the child to pass by his psychological moment o f ascent without perceiving it and seizing it.  … such objects are then futile.

Over-abundance debilitates and retards progress; this has been proved again and again by my collaborators.

~ Maria Montessori (Advanced Montessori Method I,   Kalekshetra 1965)

Why Is The Giraffe In A Box?

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Missy is a little over two and a half years. The world is brand new and magnificent! A walk in the neighbourhood holds endless adventure and she is curious about everything she encounters.

She loves ants and can spend considerable time observing them. She throws down crumbs from her snack box hoping she will get a chance to see them carrying the crumbs in one long row.

Caterpillars too hold special fascination for Missy, as do cows (India has plenty of these gentle creatures on her roads), dogs, butterflies, beetles, squirrels, birds, cockroaches (yes, you heard right, cockroaches!) and every other animal that we co-exist with in our urban environments.

Yes, Missy’s world is a fascinating place.

Television, the i-pad, the computer and other varieties of screen time are not a part of Missy’s life.  But sometimes Missy encounters these.

Recently she was visiting one of her relatives who was watching a ‘childrens’ movie on television. Missy was riveted to the screen – singing, talking animals!!! Who Knew?

But if this was it, I wouldn’t be writing about a giraffe in a box, now would I?

That night, her mum was awakened to Missy crying! She was inconsolable. When Missy did finally calm down, she asked tearfully, “Why was that giraffe in a box?”

Missy was referring to the snatches of the movie she caught that morning – a giraffe was in a box and was being forced out with repeated prods from a log! It was supposed to be a slapstick and humorous scene, mind you – but to Missy it was the stuff of nightmares.

How was she to process what she saw? It was terrifying and sad.

Here’s another conversation with a child who just turned three. We shall call her Miss B.

Miss B: “You know one day I went to a f-a-a-a-a-r away place. It wasn’t here – it was f-a-a-a-r away. I met Tom and Tom could stretch his face up and down”

Adult: “Is Tom a cat ?”

Miss B: “Yes, I saw him in a far away place. It was scary – I got scared”

There are a million and one excellent reasons why young children should not have any screen time. For this post I will  stick to just ONE.

Aptly highlighted by the above anecdotes, young children have a difficult time distinguishing the real from the not real, fact from fiction, reality from fantasy.

They have found themselves on a brand new planet. From experiences in their environment they make generalizations about how things work and transfer these to their everyday life. What our young are doing is building their ‘road map’ to navigate their surroundings.

Nature helps them by ensuring their brains are wired in a way that they can go about their great work . Their great work can only be done through active exploration of their environment. Through this exploration the child will ‘incarnate’ their environment. Big word – incarnate. But, that is exactly what young children are doing everywhere in the world.

Television and other forms of screen time, are too abstract and confusing for the young child.

Not only is the child a passive viewer, but television often provides an inaccurate and counter productive picture of reality and the child uses this as their raw material to navigate their world! Fears and unrealistic ideas of cause and effect are served up to the young child through television and other forms of screen time.

Added to this is the fact that the images and sounds children encounter on television, the computer and other forms of electronic devices, do not stop when the button is switched off. They continue to ‘play’ in the child’s mind. Montessori called this ‘flight’.  The child is physically present but mentally is in some ‘f-a-a-a-r off’ place. Flight further distances the child from her present, here-and-now, environment.

Everywhere I go I see tiny mites, some still in diapers and prams, fiddling with phones, I-pads and other electronic devices. Often I see adults push these gadgets into their child’s hands so that they may continue with a conversation. At restaurants I constantly observe children with a  screen in their hands. The immediate environment instantly recedes. There are no people, no objects, no voices, no activity –  just finger poking and swiping and beeps and twangs.

Screen time places hurdle after hurdle for the young child.

Like I said in an earlier post, Urban India needs to wake up, turn their television sets off, put their computers to sleep and take their children out for a walk !

Ode To The Prepared Environment

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Today I would like to share a beautiful post written by a dear friend and fellow Montessorian.

Her post about the prepared environment really resonates with me.

There are so many aspects to a prepared environment. The most readily available aspect is of course  the physical environment. But this is just a starting point. The prepared environment is an answer to the whole child, her physical, social, emotional and spiritual needs.

Hope all of you enjoy the post.

Montessori Sojourns – The Prepared Environment

“People are what they are as a result of their own specific environments. The life force adapts itself to fit the environment.”

Nurtured By Love – Shinichi Suzuki

the beauty of SMALL

We are a small school.

We have 30 children in total. There are 4 teachers and 3 support staff.

Much has been said about difficulties that arise with too small a class size, and it’s ALL true. We have recently gone from 7 children in the elementary to 11 children … still too small a class size, I know …. and with just this teeny – tiny change there has been a positive difference.

But then there are the benefits of a small school.

Each one of us has a relationship with the other. Every afternoon, we eat together as a community, every birthday is celebrated with the whole school present, every child knows the other. Each adult in school, including the support staff, has a personal equation with every child. We understand their pulse and rhythm.

We will not always be as ‘small’ as we are today, but my hope is that we will always be able to capture the beauty of ‘small’.

ENIVORNMENT

These are exciting times.

Having recently moved school to a new location, we are enjoying setting up our environments.

There are small tweakings done everyday as a response to what we observe.

There is nothing like a new perspective to shake things up and re-arrange those neural pathways.

Suddenly I ‘see’ things, I was otherwise walking right past.

Here are some pictures of the elementary environment.

All photo’s were taken by a dear friend and colleague, Anupama Hejaji.

Before you enter the elementary environment, you have a little patch of green. Children often take their work out, especially when viewing slides under the microscope and painting.  The little brown path at the far left is where we will cultivate our own vegetables.

As you enter you have the children’s lockers and stationary shelves.

On the left are the bins (small for inorganic waste and large for organic waste) and a bin for blank chart papers. On the top left there is a peep hole to the kitchen … (2 coffees and 1 aloo bonda, please!!!)

The teal and cane stools are the waiting spot and adult’s place, respectively. The shelves behind the cane stool house zoology, botany and language material.

As you glance to your right, you see a part of the library against the stone wall, the microscope table, art shelf and curiosity table. In the foreground is the stone table that we got made ourselves. I usually put an interesting book or books on it. Shortly after this photo was taken, it carried the book, ‘Art forms in Nature’ by Ernst Haeckel.

Close up of the microscope. The table was made by a friend of the school and gifted to us on our move.

Here are the math shelves.

History and geography areas. On the right, under the painting is a lightbox.

In the kitchen we have the physics and chemistry material.

On the other side of the kitchen is the cooking area.

The elementary children cook twice a month for the entire school. We find recipes for healthy food,  hoping that this will help inculcate healthy eating habits. Since moving we’ve made, garlicy green beans and carrots (we found the recipe here) and melon juice.