Metamorphosis Elementary School Of Monticello Inc

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Thank You, Wind

Tousled children blew in through our front door at the beginning of last week. They stumbled over their own feet, sending boots and other children flying. Our weather's been rough and unusual for January, with bed-shaking thunderstorms in the mid of night, followed by powerful winds. Incessant, roaring background noise that was whipping the children into a bunch of little wildlings. Children seem to be particularly sensitive to strong winds, as anyone who has ever monitored a playground will attest. They come unraveled, running in circles, jumping off structures and onto each other, hooting, howling, maybe in mimicry of wind. I think that perhaps, underneath the surface, they are somewhat afraid of this wonder of nature, after all, as my mentor always said, "They've only been in the world for a few years." Maybe adrenaline kicked in by the physical sensation, the motions of trees, and that perpetual static of sound of prolonged wind sets them to spinning. Whatever the reason, the children were definitely not the little people we remembered from the Friday before. Teachers looked at each other with trepidation - just for a second. Although children may usually go right to choosing their work at our school, we decided to call them to circle. All seated, one could almost sense a sigh of relief. I always sense that the Montessori environment provides a little oasis from the harried culture that our families find themselves in these days. This day, the children had the roaring to deal with, along with lack of sleep from thunder added to their sometimes chaotic morning routines. There. The soothing ritual of "Here We Are Together." "I see Carter. Hello Carter. I see Ella. Hello Ella." Each child looks forward to being acknowledged and greeting their friends. When we gather at circle, we often share news, "...something that has happened very recently or right now." Today the news is unanimously weather news. Some of the youngest can only manage an alarmed expression and utter, "Tun-der!!" Older children give various accounts of their own bravery, mentioning that the dog was scared, but of course, they were not. Some admit to crawling into bed to hunker down with parents. The best port in a storm... Soon, these tumble weeds that rolled through our school door this morning look like our children again. We are much better. Let's go to work. Music is selected, composer's picture is placed on the music shelf, and off we go. We are not listening to Pachelbel or another lulling piece that one might expect, no, we are listening to a Velvet Underground song. Surprised? We use a timeline of musical history and feature composers and CDs that I've made for every period right through today. Elizabeth Mitchell's beautiful voice is singing, "What Goes On In Your Mind?" and this is a class favorite. We hear various phrases belted with gusto as someone does the Hundred Board, makes orange juice, paints and so on. (Only in Montessori!!!) Gus walks by the snack shelf, sees the bright, juicy oranges and the bagels and cream cheese, and exclaims, "OH! That snack makes 'my' happy!" Everyone's working. Peace in the classroom.

So many years ago, the child who lead me to Montessori, my son Nicholas, was exploring our prairie-style plantings in our front yard. He was almost three, wearing a pointy hooded sweatshirt on a beautiful, but blustery autumn day. All of a sudden, a small, brown pin oak leaf blew right into his little hand. He looked up, startled, but then recovered, grinned broadly, and cried, "Thank you, WIND!!!" I'll never forget that moment, that wonder in my beloved child's face. We lost Nick in 1990, suddenly, unexpectedly, at age twelve. My other two dear children, my Montessori children, and Montessori itself carried me through those dreadful years. Montessori and Nicholas Joseph have been my life's two greatest teachers. I would never have found Montessori if my son had not struggled in public kindergarten. And I  am sure that I might not have developed the level of commitment to professionalism and the ability to love and care for other people's children as deeply as I have, without running this difficult gauntlet. One of life's "mighty storms." (Nanci Griffith) I continue to love my son deeply through each child that I serve, every single time I soothe or encourage a child in exactly the same way that I would want my children to be served. Montessori taught me that. Nick taught me that. And that makes 'my' happy.

Elizabeth Mitchell - You Are My Little Bird
Great gift for children and families!


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Have You Ever Heard of Montessori?

How does it happen that a comprehensive, insightful, scientific method of educating each human being to his or her potential, gets brushed under the rug for half a century? I mention this because sometimes when I am presenting Montessori to parents, students and others, someone inevitably asks a question like, "If Montessori is so great, why isn't it everywhere?" My answer is usually short, and includes information like, "Actually Montessori is everywhere, but is usually limited to the private sector - although public schools are experimenting with charters, and some cities, like Milwaukee, WI  have chosen Montessori education for their public school model." (As I said, that's the short and sweet answer. The authentic answer is more complex, and more down and dirty.) Then I usually give the questioner a few numbers and some statistics about the people who have attended Montessori schools, and the people who choose Montessori schools for their children. I might say something like, "...Today there are over 17,000 Montessori schools worldwide including thousands of preschools in the USA and hundreds of Montessori schools in the U.S. at the K-8 level" (Petter-Lipstein, 2011, p.488). People who want and can afford a state-of-the-art education for their children often choose Montessori. I also mention Montessori success stories like Jeff Bezos and the Google Boys, because, I have learned that the current generation relates well to that type of information. That's my spiel... I don't go into the details of Dr. Maria Montessori's vast contributions to human society over a lifetime spent excelling, achieving, advocating, struggling, and succeeding in transforming - actually inventing - a scientific approach toward the education of young children. I don't elaborate with details of her trials to obtain her education during a time where women faced overt discrimination, and discuss her fear of the cadaver lab that she had to use a night, as she was not allowed to share the space with men during daytime.  I don't bore them with a list of her achievements: Physician, pediatrician, anthropologist, scientist, visionary, suffragette and  crusader for women's rights, and children's rights, and the rights of the poor. I don't mention that during its heyday, Montessori education was endorsed by "...Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and Woodrow Wilson, who helped to start Montessori schools in the United States" (Sanantonio, 2011, p.4)  I don't tell them that she had enjoyed fame and honor for her achievements, that she was invited and welcomed, and had lectured and taught her method around the globe, only to see her vision of education appear to be dashed, toward the end of her life. In 1952, the year Dr. Montessori died, (and the year I was born,) Montessori schools, that had held such hope, were in serious decline in the United States.

Help me to do it by myself.

Peer teaching, cooperation in a non-competitive atmosphere

Nurturing and care of our environment: People, animals, plants, materials and the Earth

"Not in the service of any political or social creed should the teacher work,
 but in the service of the complete human being, 
able to exercise in freedom a self-disciplined will and judgement,
 unperverted by prejudice and undistorted by fear." 
Dr. Maria Montessori

Thank goodness her followers held on. The roots flourished, Montessori schools kept Dr. Montessori's philosophies and principles intact, and now we are seeing a resurgence of interest in this model that meets or exceeds standards that traditional educators have been grappling with since the inception of factory education. We were careful to steer away from criticizing public schools for decades. Instead we persisted in establishing Children's Houses, where children blossomed according to their natural inner drives to learn, to practice and repeat, and to master. We were quietly effective. Things have shifted, and the traditional system of education is said to be "broken." I do not believe that it is "broken," but that it was never an appropriate method to truly lead human beings to think critically. We have the optimum method right under our noses. As Petter-Lipstein stated, "Superwoman was already here. And she gave us a superb educational model to end "The Race to Nowhere'..."(p.488). Let's clean house, shake out some rugs, give our children and our schools some fresh air. Montessorians: It's time to make some noise.

Friday, January 13, 2012

"Teacher...You Look So..."

"Teeee-churrr." A round-faced boy with gleaming eyes is gradually, but steadily moving into my personal space. I am sitting cross-legged on the story rug getting ready to lead a circle time. Although I have repeated this process, by my estimation, about 8,000 times in the last 31 years, each day with children is different and remarkable to me in some way. This is just one of the pleasures of being in a Montessori classroom. One cannot predict what is going to happen each day, but one can be certain that the children are going to make their own discoveries again and again, and that the thrill associated with their sense of wonder is utterly infectious.  I am privileged to have been an observer of this phenomenon, and to soak up some of this pure joy from the  exuberance of the young child who is experiencing the "prepared environment" of the Montessori classroom. Now we have talked about and demonstrated personal space many times during our grace and courtesy lessons, or when assisting with a conflict between children. But this boy is not thinking about this social courtesy. His eyes are wide as he zooms in closer, and closer, obviously examining my face with that x-ray vision that only the young possess. Then he is just about two inches from my face, and I can smell his little graham cracker breath. I hold my own breath out of habit, as I am aware that a child's olfactory sense is so acute.  I remember being offended as a child when my teachers had that sour breath or coffee breath. He breaks the silence and says it again, quite slowly. "Teeee-churrr. Your eyes. They have CRACKS!" This made me laugh - hard. And I knew that he wanted to know why I had crow's feet, and I needed a short answer so that the children who were coming to circle didn't split apart like little neutrons blasting about in a million directions. So I gave him the boring answer, "Yes, I do have cracks, you are right. People get lines in their skin as they get older." I knew very well that this explanation did not satisfy him one bit, but I went on to lead the children in song. "This is a song called "The Snowman. The composer is still living and his name is Mr. Sanford Jones." I asked a child to put the photo of Mr. Jones upon our composer frame. "He lives in North America, in the United States of America, in the state of Georgia, in the city of Savannah." (As I say these words, children are chosen to bring the map pieces of the continent, the country, etc.) My inquisitive boy is still sitting in front of me, and I can tell he has zero interest in Mr. Jones or the song. He is pondering my weathered and rapidly decaying body. He starts to talk, and I hold up one finger. He knows this means, "Wait," and he contains himself while we sing. Soon it is time to go outside and children are called to dress for the playground. But my boy is glued to the rug right in front of me. And then as if we were still in mid-conversation, he said, "But teacher, (He often forgets my name,) my mommy does not have any cracks and I do not have any cracks." "Well," I said, "Your mommy is quite young and has beautiful smooth skin, and you have only been in the world for four years, so your face has no wrinkles. But guess what?" "What?," he said, trouble clouding his face. "You have some lines already." He looked surprised but doubtful. "Turn your hands over dear and I will show you." He turned his hands over and examined his palms, his face erupted into a beautiful smile, and then he jumped up and ran for his coat, hollering, "I have CRACKS, I have CRACKS!" I have noticed over the last few weeks, my friend makes his way to the low children's mirror in the classroom and scrutinizes his own face very carefully. And last word about this bright, inquisitive boy...One morning I came into school wearing my long hair down. (I usually wear an up-do.) He hurried over and blurted, "Ohhhhh teacher - you, you very...O L D!" I do think he meant to compliment me, and that in his excitement, he could not retrieve the word "young." Let's just think that...


This interaction took place at the beginning of this year's term, and it's not the first time I've been shown that the children think I am ancient. A real wake up call was the time I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and felt someone feeling my elbow skin. I looked down to see a young boy "twiddling" the loose skin of my elbow. He had a far-away look in his eyes, and I'll never be sure if he was just self-soothing or if he was thinking, "Gosh, this old woman has one foot in the grave." Knowing this particular boy very well, I think I'm correct in thinking the latter. I AM older now, and do not know how much longer I will physically be able to work with young children. And the sad part is, I am WISER and better in the classroom than I was at age thirty. Isn't that the way it goes?


We garden year round at our school. 

"The land is where our roots are. The children must be taught to feel and live in harmony with the Earth." - Dr. Maria Montessori

The Montessori method of education is scientific and complex. It is also exquisitely beautiful and simple in a number of ways as well, once you understand it. Learning the intricacies of this visionary woman's miraculous technique is not easy. When I took my exams for certification, there were women with law degrees and other impressive credentials with their heads on the table. They were weeping. They did not think they could pass the examinations. And I was right there with them, in fact, I called my mentor, and she had to talk me down because I was going to bail. She gave me an extremely stern pep talk and told me to march my fanny in there and "knock 'em dead."  And I did it. Later she shared that her mentor had given her the exact pep talk when she was too frightened to take her exams. I once heard an instructor, Jeff Kaiser, share this anecdote at a workshop. He said that a friend of his said to him, "What's the big deal? It's just preschool. It's not rocket science." Jeff responded, "No it's not rocket science. It's a lot more complicated than that." Indeed it is. Dr. Montessori did not just discover, through her emperical observations and experiments, a comprehensive method of education. She discovered the child.

Now I can hardly believe that I have been learning, practicing, and marveling at this educational system for three decades. For the last few years, I have felt compelled to write about my Montessori life, what I have learned about the woman, the method, and the child. At the same time, I was reticent, perhaps afraid to begin. It means so much to me - almost too much. Am I capable and competent enough to do justice to the woman who made it possible for me to have such a special life? A Montessori Life? I think I'm old enough! I'm marching in.