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.

Cosmic Education – nourishment for a lifetime

touching-the-universe

I recently gave the first great lesson – the story of the universe to the elementary children. This is a period of great excitement, questions and ponderings for the children and well, for me too.  I am always especially excited for the children who are hearing this epic tale for the first time. An entire universe is unlocked and ready for their explorations.

The entire Montessori ‘curriculum’ during the elementary years is dubbed as ‘Cosmic Education’. Cosmic Education connects all players in the Cosmic Drama, both animate, as well as inanimate. It is an opportunity for the child to unify themselves with the very cosmos!

Lofty ideals these, but Montessori is ALL about lofty ideals. The primary aged child has the gift of developing a ‘unified self’, the elementary aged child has the gift of ‘unifying with the cosmos’ and the adolescent, ‘unifying with ones fellow beings’.

Each and every year I see these stupendous ideals fleshed out into practical experiences that guide the children on their path.

This year, soon after I presented the story of the universe to the children I saw the movie ‘Agora‘. It’s the fictionalised story of the life of Hypatia– the Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher who lived during the 4th century CE. Living through times of religious strife, Hypatia managed to hold on to her beliefs and till the very end dedicate her life to probing the secrets of the universe. At a time when the mere thought that the workings of the cosmos was anything less of pure perfection was considered heresy, Hypatia anticipated that the earth went around the sun in an elliptical orbit. Now an ellipse was considered an ‘impure’ shape – a base figure as compared to the ‘perfect’ circle, where the centre is constantly equidistant from its diameter. Hypatia was a woman far beyond her times.

While viewing the movie (which had it’s good and bad points, but this is not a film review) I couldn’t help but see a parallel between Hypatia and the elementary child. Both probe the secrets of the cosmos and ‘touch’ it with their gift of imagination, are sensitive to issues of fairness, cannot help but ask BIG, philosophical questions and attempt to find answers guided by their reasoning mind.

I often meet adults who have completely lost touch with the child they once were. Philosophical questions, the awesomeness of the universe and all the many splendours out there, leave them unmoved while they plod along life’s path miserable in their day-to-day existence.

My hope is that children who have received cosmic education will, no matter how old they get, always have the child they once were alive in them. No matter what difficulties life throws in their path, and there surely will be many challenges, they will never cease to feel wonder at this truly majestic universe that we inhabit, never cease to ask questions bigger than themselves and never fear to look for answers.

In short, my hope is that the Cosmic Education they receive will last them a lifetime.

“Cosmic Education is intended to help each of us search for our cosmic task as a species and as individuals. To do this, we must understand ourselves in context. It is only against the background of our place in the universe, our relationships with other living organisms, and our understanding of human unity within cultural diversity, that we can attempt to answer the question, ‘Who am I?’”

~ Micheal Duffy and D’Neil Duffy – Cosmic Education – Children of the Universe

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

~ William Blake

Why Is The Giraffe In A Box?

kill-your-television_218590

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 !

Hand Work

Little Girl Knitting by Albert Anker
Little Girl Knitting by Albert Anker

We do a lot of hand work at school.

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)

The Making of Timelines

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.

KHADI

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.

Gandhi's beloeved Khadi
Gandhi’s beloved Khadi

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!”

Sreedhar's shop on wheels
Sreedhar’s shop on wheels

All measured up
All measured up

The completed timeline
The completed blank timeline of life

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.

timeline black

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!

The Hand
The Hand

 

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,
thanks to the process of reaching it.
Christoph Schiebold

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.