The school I observed is about as good as it gets in public education. It’s a “Blue Ribbon”, “California Distinguished” school, with standardized test scores in the top 5% of the state. It has families all over the city vying for spots. The principal, whom I had the pleasure to talk to at length, is a kind man and a good listener; he struck me as the type of educator deeply dedicated to providing the students in his charge with a quality education.
When the child is seen to be responsible and skillful with the chopper, he is introduced to activities that include the blunt-tipped, serrated knife. It is more challenging because it has only one handle and that handle is close to the blade. One hand can be kept safe by holding that handle securely away from the blade, but the other hand must be kept safe by placing its palm on the non-cutting edge of the knife and holding all fingers and the thumb curved upwards. To distinguish the non-cutting edge of the knife from the serrated edge, the cutting edge, is not left to observation for a child so young. The non-cutting edge is marked with a thin stripe of red plastic tape. In the activity set, the knife is placed always in the same place and in the same position on the tray. While in use it is always set down in exactly the same place in the same position. The guide does so with utmost attention and intention, conveying with her facial expression her exquisite care and respect for the knife and her recognition of its danger.
My daughter was born into a tumultuous year in our lives. When she was three months old, we moved cross-country. When she was six months old, we moved again. She’ll be ten months in a month; we’ll be moving then, too. Needless to say, it’s been a challenge for her to have the perfect Montessori environment in which to grow in. In fact, she was almost seven months old before we were able to transition her to her floor bed (due to safety issues). This is not the ideal, and I realize that; however, life just got in the way (as it has a habit of doing).
Years ago when I took my Primary training, the assistant trainer presented us with a picture of the word ‘chaos’ being slowly re-formed into the word ‘order’. I would love to locate that diagram but alas, it is, paradoxically, lost in the chaos of old notes and articles and thoughts jotted on papers still too meaningful to toss. Yet it remains in my mind’s eye as a reflection of the young child’s journey from the chaos of a short life of acquisition of myriad images from an adult’s world to the beginnings of an ordered self-creation acquired through interaction with the Prepared Environment of the Children’s House. It is a reflection of the creative powers in the child herself.
It is about 9:00am, half an hour after the children have come inside from the playground and began their work. I have just arrived to the school to observe the classroom of my son a few months ago. As I walk towards his classroom I see two children, probably 5 or 6 years old, with the long one thousand chain laid out along the hallway. As the name suggests, this is a chain comprised of a thousand golden beads, laid upon a fleece mat cut to the right size and length. The children are counting the beads one by one and laying number tiles by the appropriate beads as they count all the way up to one thousand. They glance up at me as I walk by, smile, then go back to their work.
“We learn from failure, not from success,” wrote Bram Stoker in Dracula. Mistakes are essential to our growth and development, and yet in our society, they are taboo. At some point in our lives, most of us have passed the buck instead of taking responsibility for our errors; in our culture, messing up isn’t something you readily acknowledge. Since we have such a negative view of failure, we try to protect our young children from making mistakes, and this is the biggest blunder of them all.
Imagine that you have just entered a special event.
Everyone is already there and has begun to eat their meals, having already had time to hang their coats, get a drink, find their table and get to know the people next to you and across from you before the special guest speaks.
You have arrived late and haven’t had time to do any of the above. It’s almost an arresting feeling to walk in the door and realize how late you are. I mean, it didn’t seem like things were running that far behind, right?
Everything that is worth doing is worth doing well, or so my dear mother always said. Whether it is a holiday celebration, a dinner for 2 or 6, a trip to the Bahamas or the preparing of a perfect soufflé, each endeavor demands forethought, planning and the execution of those plans to ensure success. Although some of us seem to do this naturally and effortlessly, closer inspection would probably reveal the secret to success: hard work and prior planning.
The comings and goings of the children were remarkable. They seemed so assured and confident and decisive. No one was telling them where to go or what to do. It was hard to believe that I was observing a room of children ages three through six. If a child chose to do his “work” on the floor, he would first get a rolled up mat the size of a doormat from a bin of several, bring it to his chosen location on the floor, and meticulously unroll it. Then he would go get the work (or the “material” as the various pieces of work from which to choose are called) he had chosen and bring it back to the mat on the floor. Whenever he decided he was done, he’d put the work back where it came from and then re-roll the mat, placing it back in its bin. When something spilled, or it was noticed that a spot on the floor was dirty, a random child would choose to get the broom and dustpan out, or maybe hand towel, and simply clean it up without waiting to be told. I almost had to pinch myself.
On a recent morning I had two sets of prospective parents scheduled to observe in the same primary class (mixed-age of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds), a half hour apart. One of the more satisfying parts of my job is to meet with prospective parents after their first observation in a Montessori school. I usually start the conversation by asking, “What did you see in the classroom? Did anything surprise you? What were your impressions?”
Surely this father would have preferred having a conversation with me about the daughter he has in my class and her development. We had opened a discussion several times only to set it aside in favor of his more urgent and immediate task of attending to his toddler’s development. Never did this father roll his eyes, make a sarcastic comment, or express the slightest displeasure to me over being interrupted several times. His entire being seemed suffused with alertness and calm. It seemed that repeating as many times as necessary the words and gestures his daughter needed were to him the most ultimately meaningful and fulfilling experience.
An elder Quaker friend of mine was speaking of the importance of discernment when attempting to move forward when challenged; that is, letting go of our own preoccupations so to let the Divine inspire our actions. Through this process, one winnows the desires, thoughts, and personal attachments that might otherwise cloud guidance from Spirit.
Freedom and Discipline are two words that are not usually used together, at least in regard to children. It seems counter-intuitive—how can you give kids freedom and still have discipline, or be disciplined and have freedom? It is generally understood that children can only “behave” when strict discipline is imposed on them, meaning their freedom taken away– this is the thinking of traditional schooling. But Maria Montessori discovered that the two, freedom and discipline, indeed go hand in hand.
During my pregnancy I crafted a series of Montessori mobiles that are designed to isolate certain concepts (black & white, primary colors, gradation, etc.) and to stimulate the visual sense of newborns. When my son, Zachary, was 7 weeks old, I introduced the third mobile in the series: the Gobbi Mobile. It is designed to isolate the gradation of one color – in this case the color blue.