She was twenty and she told us that her mom had read aloud to her every night till she went off to university. The first time she came home for a visit her mom kissed her and said goodnight. “Wait,” she said to her mom, “we can’t go to bed till you read to me!” And so their custom continued, but over time it evolved into each of them alternating to read to the other from their current book.
But what is the difference between the kind of work which is an obligation and a chore, and the work that fulfills the spirit and the mind? First, it is important to realize that work in a Montessori environment is not forced on a child, but is instead freely chosen. A Montessori environment offers the child the liberty of choosing their own activities, and they have consistently, and independently, chosen work that serves a developmental purpose. Through this work, children show an ability to concentrate for long periods of time, a propensity for repeating an activity until a certain skill is mastered, and the urge to make the maximum effort on any task.
I asked this group of well-educated professionals what they remembered from their own education about pi. Someone responded, “3.14159.” “You’re right,” I said, “that is the value of pi, but does anyone remember what pi means?” At once they seemed to adopt the sheepish demeanor of students in a traditional math class, each of whom is saying to him or herself: “I should know this but am afraid to answer because I might get it wrong. I hope the teacher doesn’t call on me!” To relieve their discomfort, I supplied the answer: “It is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.”
Finishing up, I asked Francesca, “Any questions?” Her glazed eyes were a clear indication of my inability to reach over and around to her side of the bell curve. I knew what I was doing, that’s for sure. “So, what am I supposed to do?” she asked with a deep-seated bleariness. “Here,” I said, “start by building a square with these pegs…” and I went back to the beginning of the lesson, and eventually, step by step, we began to rebuild the lesson I’d just presented.
This was my pattern during those first months as a first-year teacher. I’d determine a lesson needed to be given. I’d make the presentation. The kids would look at me, “What are we supposed to do?” “I just showed you…” Eventually I realized there was something missing. It was Mrs. Honneger who had said to me, “If the children aren’t doing the work it means you made a mistake.” “Me?” “Yes, you! Not them, not the material, you are the mistake!” Well, I never.
Sebastian was a very particular child. Prone to believing he was right and making his opinions known to all, he was a student for whom daily struggles were common: arriving on time, staying on task, choosing challenging work, doing work that was not always his choice, sticking to a schedule, etc. For a teacher still [...]
The first time I saw a Montessori birthday celebration was when I observed at a school during my training. I immediately fell in love with the idea. I loved the simplicity of it, along with the introduction to a bit of science and history. I witnessed several birthday celebrations while working in the classroom, but [...]
“Oh, no,” I thought, “they’re too angry to listen to her. What will they say? What will they do? It’s true, we do just sit down together at a time like this and take a deep breath before we try to speak, but they are not going to listen to her.”
Consider the child’s experience of a cube. Does she learn more by seeing a flat, screen image of a cube (actually a two-dimensional hexagon), or by lifting a polished wooden block that measures 10 cm on each side and weighs 50 grams? After observing the way young children learn, Dr. Montessori told us, “Never give more to the mind than you give to the hand.”
“We would like to read two poems, if you are available,” one of them says. I come from behind my desk to sit and listen. One of the poems is about dolphins; the other is about insects. The children read aloud, taking turns with the verses. Clearly, they have made a plan and practiced how they will work together as readers.
As a classroom teacher, I remember fondly our studies in Human History: first examining and classifying the human animal; then drawing connections between our closest living relatives, and most recently to the epic stories of the earliest of humans and how they changed with and adapted to their dynamic living environments to suit their needs.
Zach is a bit of an anomaly. He is incredibly smart in many areas, but was a late bloomer, at least when it came to reading. He didn’t read well until the 2nd or 3rd grade. But, as Montessorians often know to expect, at some point in that year something “clicked on” and he began reading voraciously– his sensitive period for reading was just a bit later than most children. He was soon reading chapter books, and by 5th grade was reading at a high school level. In high school he probably learned more from his independent reading than from school. He continues to read everything from science fiction to science journals and everything in between, and is one of the best-read people I know.
It is only after much exploration of the fractions as shapes, that we move on to defining, naming and writing them. “When we break a unit into pieces of the same size we call those fractions. When we divide the whole unit into two parts, we call each part a half. This is the family name. We write the family name ‘half’ as a 2 under a line. The number under the line, that tells us which family we are talking about, is called the denominator.” In this way we proceed, slowly and with much repetition, to teach the names of the fractions, three at a time.
What we seek to avoid are the cheap substitutes which are so highly prized in our society today, as they have been throughout the history of western civilization: superiority, pride, competition, control, praise, rewards and punishment. What Dr. Montessori discovered was that what had always seemed to be necessary to bring out the best in human nature often brings out the opposite. Yet even in our Montessori communities around the world, we struggle moment by moment, day by day to keep those practices out of our schools and our families.
For the older child, when we walk into a classroom we expect to see a wide array of work areas including tables, chairs, floor mats, pillows, quiet corners, etc. Yet, when thinking of children under one, we don’t typically understand that as much emphasis should be placed on preparing them a ‘work area.’