Friday, February 27, 2009

Notes on a Conference (possibly only interesting to teachers out there)

I would like to offer a very simplified and diluted (my personal) version of the very wonderful series of lectures offered by my trainer, Ginni Sackett, at the AMI Refresher Course in Houston held this month. The lectures were a true source of renewal for me and my work in the classroom. Much needed fuel for this time of the school year.

Normalization was a term used by Maria Montessori to describe what happens to children when they are fulfilling their true potential. Honestly, I have resisted this term a little bit in the past. It has sounded too much like a subversive psychological procedure to me. I have made friends with the term after the conference though, and now find it making appearances in my thoughts during the day in the classroom: “He's looking quite normalized today!” “Feels like a normalized environnment at this moment.. oh no.. wait... X is coming out the bathroom..."

The ultimate design of a seed is to become a full fledged beautiful plant. It can only achieve this if it finds a propper environment and is able to overcome any obstacles in its growth process. Likewise, the destiny of a child is to become a well formed, compassionate adult. The path intended by nature for the child to travel on to reach this destination is normalization.

The normalized child is self confident, creative, happy, caring of others, caring of its enviornoment. He has developed a positive relationship to learning.

When children are normalized in a classroom setting, you can identify them as the ones that are capable of choosing their work independently, carrying out the work in concentration, and realizing the purpose of the material, repeating the work, and then, with a big smile on their face, putting the work away. In simple terms, carrying out a complete work cycle. Some children are able to sustain this normalized condition every day, and some children only for a few minutes, hours, on and off.

Dr. Montessori called this process the most important single aspect of our whole work. As teachers, our intention is to help children find this path and travel it. It is simple to do, one would think, just remove the obstacles, including ourselves, and give the kids materials to work with! Rookie mistake #1- to think that we can just offer gorgeous materials, show how to use them, and step out of the way...

Oh the suffering of first year teachers... Oh the destruction of materials that happens that year...

The work of the Montessori directress is of a dual nature. There is a role she plays BEFORE a child is normalized, and a role she fulfills afterward. What unites both manners of teaching is the objective of helping the child become normalized. Because no one can make the journey other than the child, the teacher's role is to provide the opportunity for the child to choose this path on his own. She cannot MAKE him take it.

Before the child is normalized, the directress is like this: (please don't be shocked, it's so opposite to the image of the Montessori teacher we all want to be)

She has to be the entertainiest, super #1 good times provider, praiser of every positive action she sees the child come up with, endlessly compassionate and ever patient even when small hells are breaking loose.

Gaining the trust of the child is her first task. (Just this first point is worthy of it's own AMI Refresher Course Conference.) Establishing a relationship with parents is very helpful here. I have experienced this. By being gentle, inviting, happy, and all of those other qualities that it is difficult to be when one is watching a little person jumping up and down on a table, and offering modes of activity (see two lines below) she can get through this.

Once the child trusts the teacher, and feels like what she has to offer is going to be very fun and enjoyable, then she can begin the enticement towards independent work.

The way to be the entertainiest adult around in the classroom is to offer motives of activity (this is just fancy wording for fun/educational games). Examples of motives of activity:

Singing songs
Counting games
Grace and courtesy lessons
Language games
Movement games
Practical life lessons
Walks in the garden
Giving some toys (ex: Legos, wooden blocks)

Basically, anything that the “hokey pokey” can provide. The objective is for the child to focus his attention on his body (concentrate) for a little span of time while having lots of fun. During these activities the child experiences a little bit of the feeling of concentration and attention. (It feels good!) The games are also sneakily used as preparations for many of the materials that will come later (for example: the Sound Game.)

Gradually, one day (maybe tomorrow, maybe at the end of the year) the child will show enough control and attention for the directress to be able to trust him with a piece of real material which the child can carry out. Paring him with a material that is difficult enough to sustain his attention, but easy enough that success is possible is the key here.

And then the easy part begins. Well, slightly easier than being the super #1 good times provider...

By providing materials and an environment suitable to sustain the budding concentration of the child, the teacher begins to fade into the background becomes the more well known image of the ideal Montessori directress. The one that is indistinguishable from the wallpaper and who emerges only to say: “Come with me! I want to show you something!” Then she can become the gentle guide of the child on his journey to manhood.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Notes to self on communication with children.

  • Be inviting and gentle.
  • Encourage them to find their own answers.
  • Conversation at eye level.
  • Listen.
  • Pause before interfering in any child's activity- sometimes there is more to what you initially see.
  • Encourage repetition with materials with phrases like -"Let's do it again!" or "This time, you can try to do it without making a single sound."
  • Be the model of the type of problem solvers I want them to become.
  • Focus on and celebrate every single form of positive activity that comes from the "challenging" children.

Doing the best I can.

There are some discouraging moments...

It can be very easy to lose perspective when I am caught in the juggle state of mind which is my brain on Montessori. It gives me great comfort to think some obvious thoughts:
  • I cannot know what I don't know, or according to Eckhart Tolle I already know everything I need to know.
  • I can only do what I am capable of doing, I am doing my best and it is all I can do.
  • When I focus on myself and what I am doing, then there is no space to worry about whether everyone else agrees that things are going well.
"...sometimes letting go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on." Eckhart Tolle

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Brave enough to allow what is to be.

I often get caught up with images of what an ideal Montessori classroom should look like. I have observed at many schools and seen (once) an impeccable interpretation of Montessori utopia (so I know it is possible). There is often an image in my mind which interferes with the reality of where our community is at a particular moment. I am guilty of superimposing qualities to my group which it certainly does not possess at a given time. Those images of normalization at time seem like the future to which I'm trying to rush into, but ever elusive like the horizon that keeps moving with me.

The tears sprung from my eyes when this weekend, at the AMI Refresher Course in Houston, my trainer casually said "This is exactly what a Montessori classroom should look like, crazy and deviated." Obviously, she meant that this is not the way it's supposed to look like FOREVER. "Don't judge it," she said, "work with it."

Dropping all pretenses of what the classroom should be like and taking a look at what is actually there, what IS, is the first step. In my zen audio books the monks talk a lot about how one can only take one step at a time- it is the only possibility in reality. So I am back in the classroom today, trying to be bold enough to face what actually is in there. Not judging it "the glass is half empty" or "the glass is half full", rather "the glass just is."

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Dark Room Time

It appears that the most common mistake that beginner triathletes make, according to my book "The Triathlete's Bible" is not getting enough good quality rest. It is only during sleep that a growth hormone that is essential for the repair of muscle tissue torn during hard workouts is released. Sleep is the processing time for the body. It is critical for muscle development.

This got me thinking about rest periods, down time, and sleep.

I was reminded of the little period of rest that follows a productive work cycle for children in the classroom. According to Dr. Montessori, after completing a solid work cycle where the child laid out the material, carried out the work, and/or repeated it, and then put it away, they need a while to process the work they just did. My trainer called this moment of disconnect for processing "dark room time".

This week we had a particularly active week in the classroom. Sayenne and I were trying to assess the factors that could have contributed to the upsurge in energy in the children and why so many of them had trouble keeping focussed. After so many weeks of pretty great work cycles, this week everything felt different. I wondered if there is a collective "dark room time" where the whole group needs a disconnect for processing.

Aside from my theorizing about rest periods and such, I encouraged myself with the thought of how so many times with development in children, they actually regress a little before they take a massive leap forward.

If not because there will be a giant step forward in the collective concentration span of our group, I remind myself that I can meet the ebbs and flows of energy in our classroom with patience and presence.

Aside from that, I am working on disconnecting myself fully from my work in my own down time so that in some unconscious way I can process my own classroom work with the children. To get enough rest and good quality sleep, for my body's sake and for the sake of my work as well.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

I am not because I think.

I was reading the blog of a very inspiring woman who is recording her experience as she trains for an Iron Man Triathlon in November. She described a breatkthrough in her running when she began to separate her breathing from the rhythm of her running legs. She said she would focus on taking long yoga breaths as if the top half of her body was relaxing doing yoga while her legs were kicking up the dust at a very fast pace.

I could relate that to my trying to divorce myself from the rhythm of the classroom situation around me. If my mind can stay still like calm water, regardless of what I encounter in my day... that could be powerful.