Until recently I had only heard about minimalism connected to design, architecture and art … and then some weeks ago I chanced upon a blog post about minimalism as a lifestyle. It peaked my curiosity.
The past month we have been getting some major repairs done at our home, for which we had to pack away ALL our possessions down to the teeniest-tiniest pin. Sitting in a sea of bubble wrap and cartons I wondered how we came to have so many things. What I had read about minimalism became very appealing.
As I read some more on the topic, I learnt that people interpret and practice minimalism to different degrees. Like so many things it had even become a form of ‘identity’ for some. But getting to the core of it all, to the the essence of minimalism it became apparent that minimalism was about prioritising what is important and enriching. Throw out the clutter and bring in clarity. Be mindful of your material possessions, thoughts and actions.
The connection between minimalism and montessori was hard to miss.
The montessori principle of what is ‘necessary and sufficient’ that guides the teacher at all times is minimalism in pedagogy.
The principle guides us in preparing the physical environment, in the content, words and actions that we include in a presentation and in the help that we render the child. It constantly challenges us to do away with the superfluous and retain the essential.
Now more than ever we are faced with astonishing amounts of information, materials, ideas, books and opinions. Now more than ever we have to be mindful to stay true to the principle of ‘what is necessary and sufficient’.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci
We read A LOT of poetry at school. Poems are special gifts we give each other. Lillian Moore, Valerie Worth, Shel Silverstein, Edward Lear, Basho are all familiar names – friends that delight and make us ponder.
The 21st of March was World Poetry Day and given our love of poetry, we celebrated it at school.
As any Montessori guide will tell you it’s all about the process and I am particularly glad at how the preparations for the day went.
It was so simple, child-led and has generated so much of enthusiasm.
A few days before the event, I spoke to the children about the World Poetry Day and asked each child to spend some time finding a poem they would like to share with the others.
The next morning and through the day, I saw children in 2’s and 3’s sitting in the library corner. I observed them refer to several books, read a few poems to their friends, ask their opinion and finally choose a poem for themselves.
Several children decided to copy write and illustrate the poems they had chosen and this spontaneously caught on with all the others. The children had added one more step to the process.
Then they committed the poem to memory. I modeled how to do it and they went to a quiet space, reading and re-reading the poem till they felt they had ‘got it’. This is when they called in a peer, who ‘took up’ the poem for them. It was interesting to hear the conversations at these times – “Oh! you forgot a line – come lets say the poem together and then you can try again” or “I do think you should say this s-l-o-w-l-y”
Once the child was sure of the poem, I invited her and a peer to the amphitheater and demonstrated how to ‘throw’ ones voice so that each person in the audience would be able to hear them. The peer sat at different points in the amphitheater and provided feedback on clarity.
After they were satisfied with the recitation, they returned to class to choose their next work.
Through this entire time, the children were independent, purposeful and enthusiastic. Not once did I have to intervene or re-direct. My only job was to provide clear guidelines and structure at each step. The 3 hour work cycle was not broken for practice sessions but rather the entire thing flowed into it like any other work chosen.
On the day, besides the children reciting their poems, some of the teachers joined in too. There was Kannada poetry as well.
While speaking with a parent shortly after World Poetry Day, I learnt that their daughter suggested that for weekend fun they memorize a poem together!
Now I’m sure some of you are asking the question “Why memorize poems at all? What is the point?”
Going by the experience that I have had with children, they delight in poetry.
I think this is step one – read a lot of good quality poetry and let a love of poetry pervade the environment.
After that memorizing a poem one loves, allows a child to experience the poem – the words enter her soul and she makes the poem, hers.
Here’s what Jim Holt wrote in The New York Times about reciting a poem from memory:
“It’s a physical feeling, and it’s a deeply pleasurable one. You can get something like it by reading the poem out loud off the page, but the sensation is far more powerful when the words come from within. (The act of reading tends to spoil physical pleasure.) It’s the difference between sight-reading aBeethovenpiano sonata and playing it from memory — doing the latter, you somehow feel you come closer to channeling the composer’s emotions. And with poetry you don’t need a piano.
That’s my case for learning poetry by heart. It’s all about pleasure. And it’s a cheap pleasure. Between the covers of any decent anthology you have an entire sea to swim in.”
Sitting under the shade of the coconut trees in our back garden at school, we bite into thick juicy slices of watermelon while we listen to the frantic call of the Koel.
It’s the begnning of summer and the end of yet another academic year.
One afternoon past time that we do during this time of year is cloud watching. And if the skies are clear, then observing the beautiful lace-like patterns that branches and leaves make against a clear sky.
This has become an Earth School tradition.
Those who want to partake of this activity quietly lie down next to each other on the mat and look up, while the others continue with their free play. Right above us is every object and beast that we can imagine. The clouds are a fish that turn into a teapot that becomes an old mans face!
It’s funny how traditions start. We are only 3 years old and already we have a few traditions that everyone at school looks forward to…
A trek to the same forest reserve on children’s day, which is celebrated on 14 November in all schools in India.
Giving to others during christmas time and decorating our christmas tree together – one ornament at a time.
This year, we started celebrating world poetry day and the quiet enthusiasm it has generated makes me believe it is something that the children are going to ask for again and again.
And of course, watermelon eating and cloud watching towards the end of the academic year.
Each school year there are always some children who will not return when all of us get back after the summer break. Afternoons like these give all of us the time to just stay in the present, enjoy each others company and welcome the changing seasons.
I feel that the recurring nature of these ‘traditions’ provide the children with markers to grapple with the abstract concept of time through the year plus a sense of community and security.
Personally, I don’t think you can spend an afternoon better than cloud watching!
There is a lot said about the community of children that live and work together in Montessori environments. They forge strong bonds across conventional barriers of age and such like. They become family.
But today my thoughts are with the adults that work together in a Montessori environment.
What about them? Does the montessori environment have a similar effect on them?
In my experience I have to say a big, resounding – YES!!!
Each teacher that I have shared an environment with and indeed even those that have worked in other environments, have eventually become so much more than just my colleagues. They have, overtime, become my friends and yes, my family!
Our constant efforts to negate our egos in class, pays off in our relationships with each other.
Working together, for something much bigger than ourselves creates strong and deep bonds.
Soon we will be saying goodbye to a very dear friend, school parent and supportive colleague who is bound for unknown adventures in a land far away from us.
She will be missed but family is always in your heart and so will never be too far away!
The boy wanted to give a gift to a little 4 year old who was celebrating his birthday at school. We usually gift poems to each other in the elementary and he had been a recipient of such presents.
It was only logical then, for the boy to copy write a poem as a present.
But he disliked writing – it was difficult and held no pleasure for him.
Today though, something stirred inside of him. Maybe his desire to be the bearer of gifts was far greater than his disinclination to write … maybe it was something else …
The boy painstakingly wrote out a poem, but it didn’t stop there. He copy wrote and illustrated poems for the next three hours!
He came in the next day and went straight to work. By the end of our morning work cycle he had reams of paper with poems running through them, like ants on a sidewalk.
The boy did this again on the third day.
He rummaged through even more poetry books. He marked in the parts of speech in the poems he copy wrote.
He commented on the ‘beautiful language’ made by Valerie Worth in her poem, ‘Tiger’ and finally, he wrote his own poem! …”Cars are like dragons flying through a desert“
The boy declared, “You know, I just LOVE poetry’
This coming from someone who evidently disliked our story reading sessions, resisted putting pencil to paper for the simplest of tasks, did not borrow books from our library unless it was suggested and never voluntarily chose work from our language shelves.
How did the shift occur? How did the boy, who a year ago found it formidable to articulate his thoughts in complete sentences, find contact with the words:
a black sun.
In his cold
carries it still.
Black rays roar
from the centers
of his eyes.
~ by Valerie Worth
And then it struck me – it was the gift of TIME!
Time to interact with others and to talk about things that interested him thereby practicing his oral language skills, time to pursue interests that called to him, time to receive precise help and practice skills and most of all, time to build confidence – now something that was difficult and new was no longer daunting but challenging!
This, my friends, is the poetry of Montessori environments. The child has TIME – a right in a Montessori environment, but a luxury in more mainstream learning environments.
The child is not being hurried along according to an agenda laid down by people who have never heard his name, or falling into a struggle with a harried teacher who needs to get things done. Nor is he learning each day that he is not good enough and cannot do something.
Instead, he follows himself, stays true to who he is and loves what he does!
The boy will be leaving us to join a more mainstream school for the next academic year.
My wish for you my dear boy is that you always hold true that deserts there may be, but dragons can fly through them!
Two days ago a boy was busy sliding and counting beads to help him subtract numbers in millions. Each time he borrowed or exchanged a bead, I observed him stare at the subtraction problem on his paper and mutter, mutter, mutter.
He came to me saying, “I think I’m doing this without material … just with my mind”, so I suggested that he put the material away and check.
He brought over his paper. Neat rows of numbers with a precise difference recorded.
The boy had abstracted subtraction!
“I want to do another subtraction problem. A l-o-n-g one in quadrillo’s”
Now, quadrillo happens to be a number name invented by one of the children in class, for a hierarchy after googol (10100).
I asked if he wouldn’t mind starting with a number belonging to the quadrillion hierarchy (1015 ) first and then moving on to one in ‘quadrillo’ and he agreed.
He did two precise subtraction problems. The strips of paper he had used, inspired him to make a flag out of them.
He went outside and found a stick and stuck his subtraction problems, front and back to make a ‘subtraction’ flag.
Incidents similar to this occur in every montessori environment and ours is no different. I can picture the other montessori teachers who are reading this nodding their heads in agreement.
Often I am asked the question if abstraction really happens so naturally –how and when and indeed if at all, children leave the material behind and work mentally, without being explicitly taught?
To answer how and if at all the child moves from the concrete to the abstract, we need to look at the materials presented to the child.
The montessori materials that children work with are ‘materialized abstractions‘.
The materials are the concrete forms of an abstract concept. Through hands-on work with material, the child internalizes the concept or abstraction that it houses.
Working in ‘abstract’occurs as a result of an internalization of the concept embedded in a material, and repetition of many parallel activities that serve as ‘passages to abstraction’.
It isn’t just one long vertical line, but also a horizontal one, where the child discovers the connections between things. For example, the connection between addition and subtraction or addition and multiplication and so on. (mathematics overflows with patterns and the list is endless)
To answer when will a child reach absraction, we must bear in mind that this takes time. It comes after much work and and each child has her own timetable. Rather than push a child, the Montesori guide protects the freedom of each child to reach the abstraction on her own. Aah! to witness the delight expressed at the discovery of a connection!
But most important of all, is to remember that the materials are not presented with the sole intention of having a child internalize a concept. This is not just a ‘different’ way of ‘‘teaching’. Their purpose is far greater than that … it is one of development. The materials satisfy a need of not just what is still to come but what is NOW! Through active involvement and freedom of choice, the child builds upon her ability to concentrate, self-direct and gain successive levels of independence.
But now I am digressing, let’s go back to the boy we spoke about earlier.
Looking at the paper on which he did the subtraction problems, I was struck by the neatness. There were no strokes and loops showing the borrowing and changing of quantities, like this:
Instead his paper looked like this: 826 , 251 , 450 , 622 , 368 , 274
– 673 , 529, 046 , 241 , 111 , 647
152 , 722 , 404 , 381 , 256 , 627
And I remembered my school days.
If I had shown up with subtraction problems completed like the one above, the teacher would have assumed only one thing – that I had copied it from a friend. If it had been on a test, I would have been knee deep in trouble!
The very same thing that we are celebrating in this post, would have been the source of ridicule and shame.
The boy deciding to convert his work into a flag brought to mind Montessori’s words. In one of her books she spoke about a child being anchored to his age. Though he might be working on something that we would consider beyond his years, when he goes out to play he is just like every other child his age.
The boy may subtract in ‘quadrillo’s’ but in the end he wants a flag! 🙂
We LOVE our books at school and it only makes sense that I dedicate a few posts to them.
Here is the first in a series of posts on our favorite books.
The books that children are most drawn to are those with a simple layout and beautiful language and pictures.
Montessori spoke a lot about keeping things ‘real’ for the young child. Young children are still distinguishing between reality and fantasy and it is best to offer them realistic stories, so as to not confuse them. This means no talking cats and other fantastic tales till they are about 5 years old.
Here are two books loved by the youngest member of our school, who we shall call ‘Missy’. She is a month shy of being 2 years old.
FROG ON HIS OWN by MERCER MAYER
This is just one in a series of books on a boy and his frog.
The illustrations are wonderful pen and ink drawings and ‘Missy’ loves to tell the story as the pages are turned.
BUS STOP by TARO GOMI
Young children will pick out the smallest things from their environment…a tiny ant crawling on the concrete, a little bead on the floor, a teeny spider hidden under the chair!
BUS STOPS caters to the young child’s love of small things.
The book has many details and is a burst of colour without being overwhelming.
Here are some books loved by the children between the ages of 2 1/2 years to 6 years.
PONNI – THE FLOWER SELLER by SIRISH RAO
BABU – THE WAITER by SIRISH RAO
Both books are as ‘real’ as they get.
The books are about a day in the life of a flower seller and a waiter.
Children love their simple narrative and the everyday images of life in urban India ( including a hungry calf eating Ponni’s flowers! :))
I FEEL THE SAME WAY by LILLIAN MOORE; illustrations by ROBERT QUACKENBUSH
A delightful little book of poems by Lillian Moore, who is a very popular figure at our school. One little 5 year old, loved her poems so much that she started calling herself Moore … she turned 8 years last month and still pens her name as … you guessed it, ‘ Moore’!
EVERYONE POOPS by TARO GOMI
Another book by Taro Gomi and an all time favourite. Children quietly appreciate that the topic of poop is out in the open, and love the whimsy of “a one-humped camel makes a one-humped poop and a two humped camel makes a two humped poop! … just kidding”
BRINGING DOWN THE MOON by JONATHAN EMMETT; illustrated by VANESSA CABBON
A sweet story about a mole who loves the moon and wants to have it for himself. The illustrations are soft, beautiful water colours.
FREDRICK by LEO LEONNI
Fredrick is a wonderful, unusual morality tale. I’m not a big fan of morality tales myself, but this one is fine by me …. and the children too, it seems.
Fredrick, the field mouse doesn’t join the others to work through the summer months gathering seeds, wheat and straw. Instead he gathers sun rays, colours-a-plenty and words for the long, dark winter months.
Finally, in the cold of the winter the other field mice applauded…”But Fredrick”, they said, “you are a poet!”
“So please, oh PLEASE, we beg, we pray, Go throw your TV set away, And in its place you can install, A lovely bookshelf on the wall.”
Last evening I met a little girl who use to come to our school.
She was with us for one short year in the elementary and now goes to a mainstream ‘chalk and talk’ school.
She has adjusted well, made friends and is doing fine in class.
After the customary greetings of a 6 and half year old which include, pointing out all missing teeth and information about tooth fairies, she asked, “Please can you give me a presentation on the stars? Now? Please!”
We were in the middle of a busy restaurant and Miss K wanted a presentation on the stars!
A few nights ago some of us in the elementary had a star gazing session at school.
We left school at the usual time of 3:00pm, but met again after sun down at 6:00pm. The approaching darkness while being at school was terribly exciting for the children.
We started our evening with Tchaikovsky’s nutcracker ballet playing in the background and 14 little hands peeling, cutting and grating, making a yummy winter vegetable soup for our supper. (recipe at the end of this post)
Once soup was ready we made our way to our neighbours terrace, who had graciously offered his view of the night skies, for the evening.
One of our parents had brought along his telescope and we held our breath as we saw Jupiter and four of her moons- Io, Callisto, Ganymede and Europa. We then saw the Orion nebula. Our heads spun with the realization that we were seeing, close up, the cloud that was birthing new stars!
We returned to school to the warmth of fresh bread and delicious soup. Though we have many fussy eaters, our soup bowls were empty, with every scrap of vegetable consumed!
Bellies full, we went on a night walk on little cats feet. We played for a while and enjoyed the falling night. We noticed that Orion had risen further!
It started getting chilly and time to get indoors. The next thing came as a real surprise to us adults, all the children started working!!!
One child said as he was leaving, “Today, has been the best day, ever!”
HEALTHY WINTER VEGGIE SOUP
3 tablespoons butter
4 – 5 small onions, thinly sliced into semi-circles
5 – 6 cloves of garlic, sliced
4 red, ‘Delhi’ carrots – cut into sticks
4 potatoes, cut into chunks
3 sweet potatoes, cut into chunks
2 packets button mushrooms, sliced
2 chicken stock cubes
3 tablespoons tomato puree
cheese to serve – grated
Heat the butter on a low flame
Toss in the onions and garlic and saute for a few minutes.
Add the potatoes and coat with butter.
Add the rest of the veggies.
Cover all the veggies with water.
Dissolve the stock cubes in a cup of warm water and pour into the pot.
Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and cook till all the veggies are tender.