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.


P.S. Montessori said...

Wow! That was incredibly insightful. Thank you so much! One of these years I will get to a refresher course...

Unknown said...

Oh, it's so not only interesting to teachers! This is another wonderful post, thanks :)

I too have struggled with the term 'Normalization'. It smacks of something that we are trying to do *to* the child; expectations we are imposing upon them, but I do realise that it's just an issue with that particular word (possibly something lost in translation from Italian?) & that the intention is something all together different... to release to the unfolding of the unique individual.

I have often wondered (& am hoping that maybe you can offer some advice) about this concept & whether it's considered a permanent or transient state.

For example, sometimes my son shows amazing abilities of concentration. He'll immerse himself in an activity (clearly something that is just the right thing for his personal development at that moment) & he will be an image or cordiality & respect ( which I would read as 'Normalized') & then at other times he can't focus on anything, he's dancing around the room & trying to bait his brother into some sort of disruption. Hmmmm...

Whenever I've read about this concept it's felt like they *are* discussing a permanent state, but I can't see how that can be. Maybe, a class in a classroom can grow to be Normalized on the whole and the odd disruptive experience is just a drop in the ocean of everything. But, as a parent, when we're dealing with all of those non-classroom hours, living life, it can be hard to keep things on such an even keel.

Would you mind sharing any advice or thoughts?

Sarah said...

Susanne, I just discovered your blog and as I was reading through the first few posts I thought, wow, this school and teacher sound amazing and unlike many other Montessori blogs out there I heard a lot of the same ways I think about Montessori coming from you. Well now I know it's because I trained with Ginni Sacket too! In 2006-07. I am very much looking forward to reading the rest of your blog, I teach at a small school in Whitefish, Montana.

Susanne said...

Hello MontanaMontessorian,

How nice to connect with a fellow graduate from MINW. I was in Ginni's first training course- Summers 2005-2006-2007. I guess we attended the institute at the same time. Ginni continues to be an inspiration to me- it was wonderful to see how she has evolved as a trainer at this Refresher Course. Good luck in Whitefish!


Susanne said...

Hi Amber,

You present THE question. What I've heard most commonly said about normalization is that it is both an arriving point and a departing point at the same time. The way my trainer presented it to me during this Refresher Course is that for some children it can become a permanent state- their way of dealing with the world, and for others it is like a room that they go in and out of.

There is also the question of normalizing a group. And the definition my trainer gave for this is :"When most of the children, most of the time, are choosing their own work, and carrying out a work cycle."

Hope this helps!