Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Happy Almost New Year 2010

Whoever touches the life of the child touches the most sensitive point of a whole which has roots in the most distant past and climbs toward the infinite future. Maria Montessori

As we look back on this passing year of 2009, let us cherish our work with children. We are blessed with being given the almost daily opportunity to listen to their stories, bear witness to their artistic expression, ponder the wonder of their enormous insight and to be present when they articulate with anxious breath the joy of a discovery or the completion of a work. How blessed we are to be in attendance when songs are sung by the old and the young, to participate in the celebrations of their births and to bear the heartache and joy of teary eyed goodbyes at the end of a school year. Let this be my life for years to come.

I wish each of you a joyful New Year and thank you for the fellowship which has grown up around this blog. Peace to all.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Welcomed Cup of Tea

I had the wonderful pleasure of visiting The Center School in Plainfield, Vermont last week. The small farm house serves as a single Primary classroom. It was so beautiful to look at that I had to take a couple of photographs to share with the blogging community.

After sitting and observing the children work for a short time, a five year old student approached me and asked if I would like a cup of tea. Stating that I would, she left and returned with a small basket that held a variety of tea bags. I picked the one I wanted and she went on her way to prepare it. The assistant teacher helped by pouring the hot water into a small tea pot that was part of a well assembled tray.

Another item on the tray was a timer. The child set the timer for three minutes and watched the time tick away. When the timer went off, she poured a cup of tea for me and one for herself. She placed my cup on a saucer and put this on a smaller tray.

When she served me my tea she looked at me and said, "May I tell you something?" I said yes and then she continued. "After you finish your first cup of tea, if you want more leave your empty cup up on the saucer. If you do not want more tea, turn your cup upside down on your saucer." She then smiled and walked away.

While I enjoyed my tea, I watched as the assistant helped a child make gingerbread cookies.

I turned my head looking here and there and then I found it. I found the pink tower.

This is what makes the Montessori classroom so wonderful - the consistency of the Montessori materials in all the environments. This provides new children (who may have left another Montessori school due to their parents deciding to move) comfort. They see work that they are familiar with. The adults change and how a room is decorated changes, but the materials remain consistent.

Thank you to The Center School for allowing me to both visit their school and to photograph the work being done there.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Flow Theory: Seeing the Relationships Between Materials

I have been thinking about the relationships between the Montessori materials a lot over the past year or so. I have returned to the notion of an indirect aim as a grounding place for my own abstract thoughts which sometimes take me too far from what is at hand. So, I began mentally pairing materials that seemed to me had physically similarities or required a shared hand movement. These two variables became my mini-criteria for inclusion in a longer paper on this same subject.

Defining the pairs in regards to these two criteria meant having to mentally visualize their use and to remove the labels that so often isolate materials: Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, Math and Cultural Studies. These labels, found on our albums, isolate materials from each other and therefore isolate and separate them in regards to their use by the children.

Once I simply thought about each work, and their individual design, similarities between the materials emerged. In fact, I would refer to this as a harmony which creates a flow in the classroom ultimately serving in normalizing a child. That is a lot to say but I whole heartedly believe that isolating materials fragments the environment and works in opposition to sensorial exploration and the freedom of movement - in the most broad understanding of the phrase. In regards to the term "Flow," I am referring to the writings of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Here are my initial pairs and some of my reasons for coupling them:

Spooning and the Multiplication board. Spooning is the transference of quantity from one place to another. Working with the Multiplication board, a child transference quantities from a small bowl and distributes them as required.

Similarly, Sorting and the Division board.

Here again sorting is a transference of quantities from one place to another. Sorting also requires that the items be divided into smaller portions and placed in individual containers. This is division. Look at the green beads in the small wooden bowl and think Practical Life instead of division. You should then be able to easily recall which work(s) the child initially did in order to have the eye hand coordination needed to carefully place all of those small beads in their circular placeholders.

Folding cloths and the Constructive Triangles.

The next time you see both of these materials in use by two separate students, look at the triangles and the rectangles made by the fold lines in the cloths and look at the various shapes made when the constructive triangles are placed together on a rug. See the black lines that designate which sides of the constructive triangles are to be matched and imagine each line as a fold. Do this and you will see these two materials have surprising similarities.

Perhaps the two materials most isolated from each other are the Botany Cabinet and the Geometry Cabinet.

When I was trying to think of materials to couple, I simply thought of the word Cabinet which instantly was followed by the question, "As these two materials are so physically familiar, what else do they share that I have not paid attention to?" Immediately I had an answer in my mind: the line. I then began thinking about polygons and non-Euclidean geometry. This was the key to unlocking the mystery of their relationship, of their overlapping values.

And what of that briefly mentioned statement regarding the line. When very young children do scissor work in the Montessori classroom they cut along a simple, straight line drawn on a small piece of paper. Soon, that paper is replaced by others which bear the image of a wavy line or a zig zag line. Eventual these are replaced by ones that resemble a shape, a recognizable shape. This is the same for the progression of sewing activities. The significance, other than learning to use scissors or needle, is the introduction of a line, of a basic element in grasping geometry. To pair this work I looked to the materials in Lower Elementary. Here, I found the geometry sticks.

Instantly I coupled cutting a line/sewing a line to this material.

I think children more readily see the relationships between materials than the adults in the environment. My suggestion for myself and for others is to go back to the albums and pick out a few lessons that have listed for their indirect preparation very specific materials. Get these out and work with them until you see their overlapping variables. And when you get an Ah ha! moment, set out to find other relationships between the materials. This will aid you enormously when you write your lesson plans for individual children.

I read recently that Maria Montessori took time off from her work to "meditate" on the writings of Itard and Sequin. She spent months hand writing the Italian translations of their work so that it would be available to her. She said she then meditated on the intentions of their methodology. That is what we need to do. We need to meditate on the intentions of Maria Montessori's work. It has become my passion.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

How Do Montessori Toddler Programs Affect a Child's First Year in Primary

I have been here and there substitute teaching. Last week, I spent five days subbing in an AMI Toddler classroom. I was amazed at the work these young children were doing. So much of their work looked familiar, as it was. They did leaf washing, plant watering, cloth washing, mystery bag 1 and the list goes on. It was great to see them so occupied and so accomplished. But, I was left wondering how this work that they are now doing would later affect their work in the Primary classroom. I wondered about those first preliminary lessons that are so much of the work done in the first few weeks of the year. Would they be as captivated?

Looking at the Practical Life shelves in the Toddler room, I noticed several of the dressing frames. There was the button frame, the Velcro frame, the snap frame and the zipper frame - although the flaps and buttons were slightly larger than the Primary versions of these same works. Having already had lessons on these, could they simply use the ones in the Primary environment without another lesson or would I re-present the slightly modified frames in hopes that some small detail would catch their eye and their interest.

I am hoping all of you would provide answers to some of my questions - as naive as they may sound. I see more and more Montessori schools offering Toddler programs. I think they are amazing. I just want to dialog about how to create a bridge between the Toddler environment and the Primary environment, just as with the elementary program. If I have all these questions and thoughts, I am sure others do also.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

I Haven't Had a Lesson on That Work Yet...

I heard a wonderful story at lunch today. A couple of the AMS Primary Teachers at the school I was subbing at are taking their AMI Primary training. Today and tomorrow, an internationally recognized AMI consultant is visiting this school. She will spend time in each of the Primary classrooms (4) taking observation notes. Later, she will sit down with each of the teachers and discuss her observations with them individually.

During the time when the consultant was in one of the Primary classrooms, a child walked up to the lead teacher and asked for a lesson on the division circles. The teacher hesitated for a moment and then turned to the consultant and quietly said, without the student hearing, "I have not had a lesson on that work yet." She was referring to her AMI training which she completes next summer.

When the consultant heard the teacher's remark regarding not having had a lesson on the materials, she suggested that she give the lesson to the child instead and did. The lead teacher watched and witnessed the initial presentation of simply taking a few of the fraction circles to a working rug and sensorially manipulating them without giving any of the language.

Listening to this teacher tell her story, I couldn't help but think of how many times I have heard a child tell me that same thing when I substitute teach in a classroom or tell another child. To hear an adult say it out loud resonated within me as when something small stirs in you thoughts that result in new insights. I heard in her voice vulnerability, honesty and a humble self. She positioned herself as the student and the consultant as mentor, teacher of teachers. It was an ego-less act. The gift she received was to be able to see the work presented and to reap from that presentation the knowledge being offered her via the willing consultant.

It also made me think about the the 3-6 aged children in the classroom and the commitment that a multi-age environment has towards mentoring. I love the idea of a child observing their teacher learning from another teacher. It's all good.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cards and Counters - Which One Would You Want To Work With?

At the Centennial Celebration and refresher course in San Fransisco, we were encouraged not to only use the catalog version of the cards and counters that are found in so many primary classrooms but to also make our own. The speaker said that Mario Montessori asked that beautiful things be used for the counters such as beads, shells and semi-precious stones.

I take an extra look at this material when I substitute in various classrooms so as to see if the teacher has put together one herself or purchased one. Today I photographed a child using a cards and counters material that I was drawn to myself. I wanted to sit down and do the work after him just so that I could touch it and experience its beauty.

Besides the aesthetic quality of the material, I really liked that the object for the one was larger than several of the objects used for greater quantities like 6 or 9. I have found that a child making a short bead stair will be thrown off if the bead bar for 4 is longer in length than the one for 7. This happens when a bead bar is lost and is replaced with one from another set.

On many occasions, I have told children to count the bead bars and note their quantity, rather than visually assessing one to be larger and therefore judging it to have more value. But, again and again, I have seen children become upset as their sense of order tells them its incorrect.

In today's set of cards and counters, the objects are the same if they collectively represent a specific quantity. Their common attribute is that they have something to do with the ocean or beach - shells and sea glass.

Look at each picture below and ask yourself which one you would want to work with. Let me know via your comments.

Catalog cards and counters:



The cards and counters in today's classroom:


(I just noticed he has three shells under the 3 and the 4. I am substituting in the same class tomorrow. I will check to see if there is a shell missing...)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

On Being An Assistant

I recently took a four day assistant workshop. It wasn't a Montessori training. It was with the Baron Baptiste Yoga Institute. The workshop was an amazing, informative and exhausting four days. Assistants work in a yoga studio environment populated by adult students and led by a master teacher.

Each of the 109 attendants learned anatomy, asanas (poses), pranayama (breathing) techniques and techniques on assisting a yoga student. This work of assisting students generally requires touching the yoga practitioner. Talking is at a minimum, if at all. Eye contact is brief. The touching is referred to as adjusting. These adjustments assist the student in coming into a "deeper pose."

Coming into a "deeper pose" constitutes the physical act of being in the pose and the mental act of concentration and focus. All movement is purposeful movement. Knowing when to assist by physically adjusting and supporting a student or by providing tools such as blocks or straps is made by quiet observations off the mat. When the class is finished, the assistants clean and prepare the environment, along with arranged volunteers, for the next class. This might also include sanitizing and re-rolling the studio's yoga mats.

The other day, when I was taking a yoga class, the master teacher attempted to assist me. I quietly stated that I did not need assistance as I was about to make the adjustment myself. He persisted and I again asked not to be helped. About a half an hour into the class, he stopped by my mat and attempted to assist me again by adjusting my wrist. I have a fused wrist and forearm. I stood up and heard myself softly say the classic Montessori line, "I can do it myself. Thank you, but I do not need help."

It was a significant moment having just taken my own assistant training. I thought to myself, "This is how all my three and four years feel in my classroom when I try to assist them even after they have stated their desire to do it themselves." It brought me into a deeper understanding of their position and posturing, while simultaneously informing me that assisting in either setting requires not only visually assessing a situation but actively listening to the student.

Yoga and Montessori have so many overlapping variables. I worked as a specialist while my son Ian was in his final high school years instead of working full time as a lead teacher. This provided me with more flexibility in my schedule so as to be available to him as he needed me.

As a specialist I taught yoga in various Montessori schools in the Boston area. I had a great web page called "Yoga with Susan: Where Montessori and Yoga Meet." During my class, we often played the bell game and did other Montessori activities. One time, while playing a brief game of concentration with materials from the classroom, a student said to me, "Concentration leads to meditation." He closed his eyes and became absolutely still. Soon, other children followed. I have so many wonderful memories of working as a specialist. I continue to teach yoga to children and do it as my full time job in the summer.

I am not working as a lead teacher this year. Instead, I have been substitute teaching while I prepare to move to Vermont where I will again take on the role of directress. Most of the time when I sub, I am asked to work as an assistant. It has been a deeply rewarding experience. I spend much more time writing observation notes and preparing the environment than I did as a lead. I also assist children at the teacher's request.

Besides my years of experience as a Primary Directress, I bring to this work new insights having recently taken my yoga teacher assistant training. At the end of the four days, each of us described what we found the most captivating about the work. One of the trainees said, "To be in service to another." Her words continue to resonate with me. If I could describe the role of an assistant in the Montessori classroom those would be the words. They sing a humble tune that speaks of both knowledge about and personal commitment to the work at hand.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Sometimes Solutions Are So Simple

I use to have my assistant check all the plants in the class after children watered them excessively and repeatedly so as to wipe up all the water drainage from the tops of shelves. Recently, I was in a classroom and observed a lesson on watering plants. I was fascinated by a small container of twisted bamboo sticks. I listened as the teacher instructed the student to place one of the bamboo sticks in the soil of a plant after they watered it.

This worked as a visual cue to other students that the plant had been already watered and that they should not water it again. During morning prep, the assistants of the class remove all of the sticks that were placed in plant soil the day before, clean them and return them to the little jar on the plant washing tray.

I don't have any of these twisted bamboo sticks, but I do have many, small bags of fancy toothpicks. They are the kind that you use with party appetizers. They have fancy foil decorations at the top. These will work fine. Ahhh, no more water stains on the top of my wooden shelves.

The second simple solution I observed involved the chains. I can't count the number of times I have told students, especially younger students, not to touch the chains. They seem to love holding a length of chains between their hands and sliding their hands up and down.

The solution that I observed involved a practical life activity - dusting.

I watched a young student dust each of the long and short chains, the bead cubes and the bead squares. The child used the regular duster for the larger bead cubes and the smaller, paint brush-like dusters for doing the chains and the bead squares. It was careful and concentrated work. It made me think of how caring for an object nourishes respect for the object.

Although, the child was too young to do math work with the material, she was not too young to learn the details of its design by touching it and perhaps sensorially discover relationships between the individual pieces.

Sometimes solutions are simple, but take forever to think of or stumble upon. In this case, I stumbled upon two in one classroom. I was very grateful.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Teaching Children To Look and To Study: A Lesson On How To Use A Slide Viewer

I will never forget watching slide shows in my Aunt Gale's living room when I was a child and a young adult. Nor will I forget visiting my grandparent's farm in Upstate, New York. My grandparents bought the farmhouse, which had been a general store in the late 1880's, after they retired. I spent hours looking through their stereoscope at the vast number of slides that were amongst the hundreds of Victorian objects acquired with the property.

Perhaps it was this early experience in looking, at studying a single image, that lead me to love photography, not as an act, but as a study. Living in Rochester, New York until I was in my thirties, I often visited the Eastman Kodak Museum. Looking at one image and studying that image lead me to two of my favorite writers: Susan Sontag and John Berger. When I wrote as an art critic, I often referred to their books and to the theoretical discussions around the gaze and the problematic act of looking.

Problematic in that making eye contact with another of the opposite sex or above your social status has historically had a range of consequences including the ultimate punishment, death. Even studying an image for more than a minute or two is called "staring," which is socially labeled as misconduct or rude. To look and to examine is something small children often do and, when considering Maria Montessori's writings regarding "the absorbent mind," must.

At the movie theater, both adults and children are free to look directly at something which they are otherwise restricted to view in both public and private places.

I remember taking my own son to see a particular foreign film when he was around ten. I was captivated by his face as he stared at the screen. The main character of the film was a blind child. My son told me later he never looked at anyone blind before because he didn't want to embarrass them and he, himself, did not want to feel uncomfortable. The dark theater allowed him to look without social punishment.

In my classroom, I keep a slide viewer and slides (4 or 5 at a time) available for children to look at and study.

The viewer is kept by itself in a lidded box (to the right of the mirror on the shelf: image below). The slides are kept in a small, handwoven envelope (in front of the leather-looking box).

When I present the lesson, I remind the children how to hold a color tablet. The color tablet is held at its white edge.

(image above from

I then show the child how to hold a slide at its frame and tell them to never touch the slide itself as it could damage the slide. Some slides have arrows that show which side is to be placed first in the viewer so that the image is correctly positioned for viewing. Others require looking at the label on the slide to determine which side is to placed in the viewer. Arrows can be drawn on the slides, and this is perhaps the best solution. Also, I have at times included a single, child sized, white glove as one might find in a toy magician kit. Children place the glove on the hand that will touch the slide. It is very curator-like and adds a step to the work that reinforces the care needed in using the slides.

I was given some free white gloves from CVS photo department but they were too big. So, it remains absent from the tray until I find another magician's glove (thrift store genie are you listening?).

The child places a slide in the viewer and holds down a touch sensitive button. This button turns on the back light. The child sees the slide by holding the viewer close to his eyes. When finished, the child removes the first slide, places it carefully on a small tray and then inserts the next slide for viewing.

The children are captivated by this work. I am captivated by their faces as they study the single image.

Slides have become difficult to find. Years ago, you could buy slides at museums. No longer. They have been replaced by CDs. I rely on thrift store finds for mine. I am very particular in what I want so my collection grows slowly.

The slides I prefer compliment the continent folders.

Also, I try to find slides of children from different time periods. Believe me when I tell you that children are just as amazed at "how strange" children dressed in the seventies as in 1920's or earlier. These slides are history lessons captured in a single image. When you ask them about what they are looking at. They will tell you about hair and clothing styles, about types of eyeglasses and cars. They will tell you if the people in the slide look happy or sad, young or old. They are learning to look and to examine.

Later, when they are painting a copy of an art card, this ability to see details and to capture them in both their memory and on the page comes into play.

There is no shortage of splashy, fast paced images flashed across huge commercial billboards and television\computer screens. Television screens fold down from the interior ceilings of mini-vans replacing simply looking out the window and viewing the world around you.

This constant exposure to non-stop images has been linked to hyper-activity in children. The question arises "What are children really seeing and how much of it can they take in?" Acknowledging all of this, it makes sense then that in a Montessori setting a single, color image of a woman making tortillas in Guatemala would capture a young child's attention.

For an interesting extension of this post go to and read about another blogger and her information on making your own stereoscope.