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.
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 !
There’s woodworking, sewing, finger knitting, fish braiding (initiated by one of the children who also likes the privilege of being the one to present it to the others), weaving, crocheting and more recently, following paper patterns to make soft toys.
This year I plan to introduce children to knitting. Ideally, I would like to show them how to make their own wooden/bamboo knitting needles. It would call upon some of the wood working skills they have already gained and I am sure they will love the process of making the needles.
It is important to sow the seeds of a great many things in the elementary years. Children are still enthusiastic and willing to try their hand at all manner of ‘new’ pursuits. In the developmental stage that is to follow – the adolescent years, one sees this spirit decline. Instead adolescents want to ‘create’. What they do not want, is to start working from scratch on the skills they need to bring to life what they are imagining. If the skills have already been gained then they will use them and express themselves through their creations. This need for self-expression has resulted in substantial blocks of time being put aside for creative and self expression during the erdkinder years.
Work with our hands is important at every age.
“Men with hands and no head, and men with head and no hands are equally out of place in the modern community…” – Dr. Maria Montessori (Childhood to Adolescence)
This summer break I have been busy with making the ‘missing’ timelines for the elementary environment.
Having already oriented themselves to their immediate environment in their first plane of development from 0 to 6 years, children in the second plane of development from 6 years to 12 years, seek to orient themselves to the entire cosmos.
In a Montessori environment, the universe itself is opened up to them through ‘Cosmic Education”. The lietmotif of Cosmic Education is the interdependance of all things, both animate and inanimate, and the gratitude that arises from this understanding.
Looking back in gratitude to all the participants in the drama of cosmic evolution is a subtext that plays constantly in the background of the elementary classroom.
The absence of easy accesibility to a vendor who stocks Montessori timelines in India has in fact been a boon. I have always found my understanding of a work crystallise when I am engaged in making the material myself. Moreover, the connection of the ‘hand’ to the material becomes more evident to the children.
Over the past two weeks rolls of cloth have been examined, measured and cut. An enterprising, and possibly only ‘alteration tailor’ in Bangalore has been befriended. Skeins of silk embroidery floss have been pulled out of dusty drawers and the tape measure has become my constant companion.
First Stop was Khadi Bhandar, where the fabric was purchased. The patient salesman heard our request for unusual measures of cloth. Meters upon meters of black khadi, strange measures of blue, brown, green and red khadi were purchased.
SREEDHAR’S SHOP ON WHEELS AND THE BLANK TIMELINE OF LIFE
I have to admit this is the first time I have come across this particular piece of ingenuity. Sreedhar, an evidently enterprising gentlemen drove up to school in his tailoring shop on wheels!
For the next 6 hours he helped us put together the blank timeline of life. After hearing me wax lyrical about the timeline and explain the idea behind the colour coded strips of cloth, Sreedhar was sufficiently charmed by the idea of making it.
We had blue for the Paleozoic Era where life predominantly existed in the waters of earth, a brown strip to represent the Mesozoic Era where life invaded the land, a green strip for the Cenozoic Era where grass, mammals and birds evolved and finally a tiny strip of red to represent humans on earth.
The blank timeline is a blank replica of the timeline of life which charts the evolution of life. Children place pictures, labels and cards of information on pre-historic life and paleogeography onto the blank timeline to construct their own timeline of evolution. By engaging in this work they discover many inter-dependancies – the plants, the animals, the rocks, the oceans, the mountains, even the ice-ages, all interdependant, forming the web of life.
The sliver of a red strip at the end, represents humans. It visually communicates the short time that humans have lived on earth, as compared to all the other players.
The child eventually comes to see herself as the beneficiary of cosmic gifts.
Each year I hear, “Earth has been home to the jellyfish, amoeba, sponges etc etc, so much longer than it has been our home!” or “It is amoeba who are really our ancestors!”
THE LONG BLACK STRIP
The story goes that the idea of the black timeline came to Montessori when she was residing in India. She had recently had a conversation with a child who had told her that there was nothing that he could learn from someone in the West as India had the oldest real civilisation in the world.
Later she observed workers in the heat and dust of Madras laying black cables in the ground.
From these two things was born the idea of the Long Black Strip – 300 meters of black cloth that represented 3 billion years of our universe’s history. The last few centimeters were coloured white to represent the time that humans have lived on earth.
Today we have reduced the 300 meters to 30 meters, and replaced the white strip with a red one.
Though the timeline does not precisely respresent the current accepted date of 4.5 billion years, it is an attempt to create an impression of the miniscule time that humans have made Earth their home.
The Long Black Strip is a compelling lesson in humility.
THE HAND CHART
The hand chart creates an impression about the importance of the hand – of work – to humans.
It is a black strip of cloth representing 7 million years of human evolution. Bang in the center is a picture of a hand with a stone tool. There is also a slim red strip right at the end that represents the birth of writing and recorded history.
All throughout the history of humans, it is their ability to work that has helped them survive.
Here echoes a message: be grateful to those of previous generations who have faithfully, lovingly, and expertly done their work in the world so that you may have life and the benefit of their knowledge!
People say that narrow paths are difficult to walk about, yet, once you have narrowed down the whole, the vast and the big, to its least denominator, the narrow path is simple,
About a month ago, we at the elementary were lucky enough to catch a splendid, magical show, ‘Saltbush Cheering Carpet‘, that was visiting our city. It is was about 2 aboriginal friends that journey across Australia and learn the secrets of their land.
Since then the elementary children have been researching all things Australia and a web of Australia has filled our environment.
The children have studied human migration routes, paleogeography and crustural plates, Australia’s political and economic geography, it’s the flora and fauna, how people satisfied their fundamental needs – then and now, indigenous Australian art, and of course, dreamtime myths.
Finally, as a consolidation of everything they had been working on, the children produced a play.
They chose from the stories they had written in the style of dreamtime myths, through a secret ballot.
The story they voted for was “Why The Kangaroo Hops”.
Each afternoon for a week, they practiced their play. Each evening they worked with their parents to make their costumes.
Finally, they performed the play for the entire school on the day of our christmas celebrations!
Though I have worked with the elementary children for 10 years now, I never know where an experience will take us. A month ago as we sat mesmerized by the show, ‘Saltbush Cheering Carpet’, no one had any idea that our christmas celebrations would have in it rainbow serpents, kookaburra’s and goannas!
We finished our reading yesterday and all the children were happy with the ending but also a little sad that the book was over.
With masterful language and pen and ink drawings, Lucy and the Green Man, slows us down in our fast paced lives, imbibes the ‘simple, everyday’ with magic, is firmly rooted in wildness and has a depth of emotion that children can relate to.
If you are looking for a book to read aloud to your children, here is a gem!
Never before have we had so many food choices and never before have we eaten so poorly!
Healthy eating habits are inculcated in the child’s youngest years.
Eating nutritious food together as a family, including children in the preparation of meals, allowing a child to follow her natural appetite in terms of the quantity of food she eats and saying NO to junk food are some of the ways we can inculcate lifelong healthy eating habits.
One way we are trying to encourage healthy eating habits at school is by having the elementary children try their hand at cooking nutritious snacks.
According to studies conducted overseas, children are more prone to eating fresh vegetables and fruit, after a cooking session.
I do not not know if our cooking sessions at school have resulted in children making better food choices in their daily lives, YET. However, what it has definitely done, is generate a conversation of what is healthy and what is not.
In the past few weeks we have made a beetroot and mushroom salad, a carrot cake (with whole wheat flour) and a healthy version of aloo chaat (Indian potato salad).
The food is served to the entire school.
Besides being a wonderful exercise of practical life, it also provides opportunities to build community.
It is a time when we make our way out into the neighbourhood to do our grocery shopping. We have become well known faces at the push cart of our neighbourhood vegetable vendor and at the corner store.
The children spontaneously apply the grace and courtesy presentations received. From the “please’s” and “thank you’s” when buying something, to how to serve courteously; how to politely decline a snack and how to respect the declining child’s wishes.
The older children love being the bearers of these gifts of food and the younger children enjoy being the recipients of these gifts.
One never knows how and when a seed will germinate. To follow Dr. Montessori’s advice – let us sow as many seeds as possible and let the rest be the child’s work!
It’s three days to the start of a new academic year.
To wrap up the last academic year, we sat down today to a meeting of reflection. We usually do our reflection soon after we close for the summer break, but this time around it got postponed. Last year was a difficult one on several levels and by the end of March all of us were burnt-out. Centered again, we were now ready to re-visit the year past.
There was a lot of sharing and some insights arrived at. One point especially was brought into focus that I thought more deeply about.
My dear friend and colleague mentioned that she had realized that besides the environment belonging to the children, it was her environment as well and she was hoping to enjoy it more in the coming year. Occasionally, she would sit down in moments of quiet and do the things she loved doing, while in class. She was going to enjoy the space just like the children do.
Towards the end of the last academic year, the environment that I work in was so settled that I had many opportunities for this. The low hum of activity, the materials all at my disposal, the music in the background and the flood of natural light, all called to me and I found myself wanting to experience the day the way the children did.
At those times I put down my observation sheets and joined them. I drew, embroidered, symbolized poems, did design work with the equivalency insets, practiced some math presentations and made material in class. It was something that happened spontaneously. Initially, the children were curious about what I was doing. After a couple of occasions, they started saying things like, “I did some symbol work yesterday” or “After you, I think I’ll work with the long division”. I remember a parent who had come in to observe the environment, later tell me that her child had mentioned that she should observe my work as well – because I had finally started working too! 🙂
There were some changes I observed in class. The children had started becoming more careful with the material and their movements around others working, they started re-visiting some presentations that I had worked with, they were eager for the materials they saw me making to be put on the shelves so that they could have a go at them…
Montessori has spoken about indirect presentations and any Montessori guide will tell you how powerful they are. Presentations that you give by doing certain things and being a certain way, yourself. They aren’t overt presentations to individual children, but rather subtle ones to the group.
The most valuable indirect presentation I think the children received here was the joy of work! It is different from the teacher enjoying what she is presenting to the child, or verbally expressing enthusiasm for an activity – it was the quiet, personal joy felt when one loves what one is doing.
So here it is folks – do what you love in front of your children. Follow your bliss and let them witness your joy at work!