Journey of a Montessori Guide

via hodgepodgery

Much has been said about the development of the child.

Lately though, my thoughts have turned towards the development of the adult in a montessori environment.

Let me start by sharing my journey.

Fresh out of my training, I couldn’t wait to get into the classroom. I had read and re-read every Montessori book I could get my hands on and I had a deep desire to serve the child. I was enamoured with what could be and with the child.

I spent hours upon hours practicing presentations, planning and preparing the environment but the lack of experience showed. My first year of teaching was a whirlwind and many-a-times I felt lost at sea. Nothing worked with the ease that I thought it would. During the first year, my focus was much on what I was doing. I distinctly remember sometime towards the end of the year being struck as if by lightening by words I had read many times previously –  “Instead of giving out what she has in herself, the teacher must bring out the full possibilities of the children” (Advanced Montessori Method – Volume 2).

Over the following years, there were times when I remembered these words and times when I had forgotten them.

I was lucky to have the support of a more mature, seasoned teacher at this fragile stage, who encouraged and gently guided.

In conversation with many teachers over the years I have found the experience of feeling lost at sea, mirrored. Many, however have felt too overwhelmed and left the classroom to move on to other things.  The role of guidance and the opportunity to work in a caring, authentic Montessori environment is so important for the new teacher.

In the ‘The Whole School Handbook’ a NAMTA publication, written by David Kahn, Sharon.L.Dubble and Renee Pendleton, The first year teacher is refered to as a Neonate being, where the ultimate task is that of survival.

As I continued on my journey, slowly, things became clearer. Each experience carried with it an immense potential for learning. I clearly remember, my third year of teaching. I was making connections every other day. The ‘A-ha!’ moments were many and frequent. This was a time I was constructing my understanding of Montessori in practice. My most valuable teacher at this stage, was the coming together of a 3 year cycle with the same children. I started out as seeing things as black and white. Slowly the ‘craft’ of montessori, those wonderful shades of grey, requiring discernment and a balance of head and heart, became more apparent to me.

In the ‘The Whole School Handbook’, this is referred to as the ‘Consolidation’ phase‘, whose task is that of fluidity- of an integration of practice.

By the sixth year of teaching, my often repeated question was “what now?’. I knew that  my life’s path was connected with working with children and having the montessori philosophy guide that work. This is when I left the school I worked at and briefly tried my hand at consulting and co-conducting workshops …  but I missed the classroom. I longed for the daily rhythm of the environment, the daily watering of a seed sown and most of all – the children. This is when I started ‘The Earth School’.

In the ‘The Whole School Handbook’, this is stage is referred to as the Renewal stage. The task of this stage, if positively navigated is that of, well, renewal.

The stage after this is called ‘The Seasoned Teacher‘ and the task of this stage is a re-dedication to one’s work at a deeper level with a heightened sense of purpose.

The making of the montessori adult in some ways mirrors the development of the child. Each stage lays the foundation for what is to come and is only as strong as what has been previously built. Just as daily living and working in the prepared environment is essential to the development of the child, so is it for the development of the Montessori adult.

What developing teachers need is love, scaffolding, the opportunity to complete a 3 year cycle with the same children and most of all, faith in who they are becoming.

Materialized Abstractions

The Long Bead Frame (via good tree montessori homeschool)

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! 🙂