Language Development, Montessori Materials, On Parenting, Practical Life, Science

Getting Back on the Montessori Wagon

With the birth or our daughter, I found myself slacking off in the “Montessori parenting” department.  Gone are the days when Zach and I could spend 30 minutes cooking together, and my patience and resolve are minimal these days due to sleep deprivation and meeting the needs of a tiny human 24/7.

When I started noticing that my 3-year old was acting a little like an entitled brat, I knew that the changes to his lifestyle were to blame; I realized I had to modify his environment, routine, and expectations to nip this issue in the bud.

After cutting myself some slack for the first six weeks of Nadia’s life (the hugely important symbiotic period), I decided to take some baby steps to provide Zach with the activities and stability he needs.  Here’s what I’ve done and how I’ve done it:

Practical Life:

Our meals are a lot simpler now that I have to juggle a baby, but I am trying to include Zachary in the meal prep at least twice a week.  It can be as simple as scooping frozen peas into a pot of water, but at least he feels like he’s contributed to the evening meal.  I’m also encouraging him to dress himself, because we had gotten into the habit during the school year of helping him with his clothes to speed up the process and be on time for school (yes, even Montessori teachers take shortcuts!)  He has been helping my husband with simple repairs around the house and has been helping me with things like bringing the box of wipes during the baby’s diaper change.

Responsibilities (aka, chores):

To help Zach feel less entitled and more of a contributing member of the family, while avoiding becoming a nag about chores, I wanted to set up a Responsibilities Chart.  I don’t have time to make my own, and online at first all I found were sticker charts that reward children for behaviors that shouldn’t need to be rewarded.  Then I found this AWESOME chart called “Do-N-Slide”.  FullSizeRender

It comes with a label for each day of the week, along with about two dozen pictures of child-friendly chores most three-year olds can do on their own.  I picked out the ones that were relevant to our home, Zach and I talked about them together, and then I invited him to choose five chores for one day.  He slipped them in his chart and as he completed them, he moved them from the “To Do” side to the “All Done” side.  Some chores he was already familiar with (like clearing the table) while others required a brief presentation and some patience (like putting the clean laundry in his closet).

I have to make sure the environment is set up for him to be successful (i.e. make sure the watering can is on the porch, leave his laundry in a basket in his room, and clear a space on the kitchen counter so he can successfully place his dish and cup there) but a little effort on my part goes a long way!

Toys and books:

Zach’s toys and books were getting out of hand.  We got him a few extra toys to keep him entertained while I cared for his sister, but they somehow all ended up on his limited shelf space, which made for some massive chaos!  He was being careless and messy, and it was stressing me out.  Seriously, who needs Duplos AND Legos?!  His books were in two massive piles in the bathroom and in his bedroom, and he would only request the same few books over and over.  FullSizeRender_1

After a particularly stressful incident involving clean-up (or lack thereof), I hit rock bottom and put about half his toys in a storage box.  I made careful choices about what to leave out: Legos, train set, wooden blocks, a numbers activity, a shapes activity, a science activity, a geography puzzle, a few crayons and blank paper, two airplanes and a bus, and the sandpaper letters.  I also carefully selected a few quality books and placed them facing outwards in his new bookshelf.

The change was positive: He began playing with the blocks and then the geometry material, both of which he hadn’t touched in weeks, and he also repeated the science experiment three times.  Eventually, he asked for one of the toys in the storage box, so I invited him to pick one toy to put away for each toy he wanted to take out.  This has worked beautifully and I’m a lot less stressed because there’s a lot less mess!

Montessori activities:

I chose to keep Zach home over the summer instead of sending him to Montessori summer camp so we wouldn’t have to rush in the morning and so he could bond with his sister.  While this was the right decision for us, it also meant that the burden of keeping him going on his burgeoning reading, writing and math skills would lay on me. He had *just* started reading three-letter words when school let out for the summer, but I know he still doesn’t know all the letters of the alphabet.

He was not the least bit interested in doing three-period lessons and kept rejecting any activity that reminded him of school, so a few days ago I introduced the “sound of the day”.  Based on whatever conversation we’re having as a family in the morning, I’ll pick a sound from the Sandpaper Letter box and feature it in a see-through napkin holder (for example, we had read a book about a “giggling gull” so the sound of the day became the “g”).  The entire family takes turns tracing the letter and we all think of words that start with that letter.  Then, throughout the day, I’ll casually bring Zach’s attention back to the letter ifFullSizeRender_2 he uses a word that starts with that same sound.  It’s worked BRILLIANTLY and is a low-stress way of introducing the sounds!

I also put together a simple “Float or Sink” activity with objects I had around the house, and have started introducing the concept of numbers through making and labeling Duplo stacks (in lieu of the Number Rods).  I’m working on other easy-to-make activities like matching hardware store paint chips at a distance and then later finding objects around the house that are the same color as the paint chips; assorted punching activities; and a couple of sewing activities.  I’ll try to post them as we try them out.

Getting back on the Montessori wagon after lowering our standards hasn’t been a walk in the park, but when I feel like throwing in the towel after butting heads with a three-year old I think of the long-term repercussions, and it gives me the strength to take a deep breath, walk away to regroup, and try again later.

Social and Emotional Learning

Bursting the Montessori Bubble

“At what point do you burst the Montessori bubble?” a friend recently asked.  She has two young children in Montessori, but is considering enrolling them in a traditional private school after they finish Primary.

My first thought (as a former Montessori child and current parent and teacher) was, Why would you want to burst it?

Why leave Montessori if you don’t have to?Screen Shot 2015-03-12 at 8.20.05 PM

But my friend is not alone in her concern: many parents feel that Montessori shelters children from tests, grades, and competition.  Based on their own childhoods, these parents believe that only a conventional approach to education can provide the tough experiences that will prepare children to be successful when faced with the hardships of real life.

Finding myself at a loss for a coherent answer, I posed the question to pediatric neuropsychologist and Montessori parent Dr. Steve Hughes over dinner.  He looked at me from behind his glasses for a moment, and then asked:

“Which is the real bubble?”

His question was all the answer I needed.

Because the truth is, success in life is not built on a foundation of standardized tests, but on the freedom to make difficult choices and experience their consequences.

Success in life is not built on grades and percentages, but on self-awareness and self-improvement.

Success in life is not built on artificial competition among same-aged peers, but on genuine collaboration between generations.

Success in life is not built on cheating the system, but on having the wisdom and courage to transform it.

In Dr. Maria Montessori’s words…

“If education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man’s future. For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual’s total development lags behind?… The child is endowed with unknown powers, which can guide us to a radiant future.  If what we really want is a new world, then education must take as its aim the development of these hidden possibilities.” 

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Cursive Cards

For the past few weeks, Zach has shown a strong interest in sounds and letters.  He’s constantly pointing out letters and asking what sound they make, and then thinking of words that start with that sound.  However, he’s not keen on tracing the sandpaper letters.  I can’t say I blame him; ours are pretty rough (because they’re new) and his index and middle fingers are very sensitive because he sucks them!

It irritates me that he doesn’t see cursive letters anywhere except in school (most signs that he sees are in upper-case print and books are in lower-case print), so I made some cards to spark a conversation on sounds and hopefully help him associate the cursive letter with the sound while his interest is strong.  I chose pictures of objects that he’s interested in and found a great font that is almost exactly like the one used in the Montessori sandpaper letter and large moveable alphabet materials.  Please note that these are not an AMI-approved material, but simply an extension to support my son’s burgeoning interest.

I’m sharing them with you but ask that you don’t use them as flash cards to drill your child.  They’re only intended to start a conversation that then leads to the child thinking of more words on his own, and that sparks interest in and awareness of cursive letters.  Also, please don’t use them with young toddlers.  The images are not to scale, and it’s important to provide accurate scale for children younger than 2 1/2.

To make them, simply print them out in color on white card stock, cut, and then laminate (or print on regular paper, mount on colored card stock, and laminate).

Have fun and let me know how they worked for you!

PS: the letter “x” doesn’t have any images because its phonetic sound is not used at the beginning of any word.  But, this in itself is an interesting point to discuss with the child!

PPS: There are only four cards in each PDF because the alignment would get all funky if I tried to put more cards in the same document.

cursive-cards-a-d

cursive-cards-e-h

cursive-cards-i-l

cursive-cards-m-p

cursive-cards-q-t

cursive-cards-u-x

cursive-cards-y-z

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Protecting the Natural Mind

It’s one of the questions that divides Montessorians: What would Maria Montessori think about children and technology? Some tend to think that Dr. Montessori – as a forward thinker – would embrace technology and incorporate it into the classroom. Others take the opposite viewpoint, arguing that although technology has evolved at a rapid pace over the past 100 years, brain development has not. They feel that the classroom should only offer activities that support the way children’s brains naturally develop.

A trainer once told me: “When in doubt, turn to Montessori’s books. All of the answers are there.” Dr. Montessori is not around to put the technology debate to rest, but her words are. I recently found a transcript of one of her speeches, which addresses the issue of technology and human development. She gave this speech at the 21st International Course in London, in 1935-36 (a course that covered education for ages 3-12). It was published in the AMI journal Communications 2009/2.

She summarizes the topic of her talk as being “about the supra mind – the intelligence of man, and the product of the constructive work of the child.” She argues that primitive man developed his senses, physical abilities, and speech to their maximum potential as a means of survival. She calls these abilities “natural intelligence” or “the natural mind of man” and they represent “the development of the human being to the greatest possible degree”.

Dr. Montessori then uses the prefix “supra-” (from the same Latin word meaning ‘above’) to refer to all that goes beyond what primitive man knew or was exposed to. Therefore, “supra environment” refers to the technological advances man has created, whereby “instead of walking on his feet, [man] uses some mechanism, for instance the wheel; or he makes use of the wind to sail his boat.” The importance of the supra environment lies in its impact on the human brain. Through the creation and evolution of technology, “man is increasing his power. This development is not just of his body; it is of his intelligence. Supra man means the intelligence which adapts itself to a supra environment.”

The supra mind gives man incredible powers. In her florid Victorian prose, Dr. Montessori explains that man “is the lord of the whole earth. He possesses the visible and the invisible, and he can create everything as if he were omnipotent.” However, the irony is that these endowments have become “a bitter source of suffering… There is no creature who acts more cruelly than man himself”.  She argues that this incongruity stems from the adults’ misunderstanding of the needs of children:

“The external development of this supra world is more and more complicated as we go on, so that more and more protection is needed for the child who is building his natural mind… The child has to develop his [natural] intelligence in order that it may grow still more in adapting itself to the present environment.”

The key phrase here is “natural mind”. Dr. Montessori is making the point that the child first has to cultivate the foundational elements of human development. In a sense, each child has to travel the well-worn path of evolution. It is our role as adults to help in this work of creation by removing obstacles and protecting concentration, but she notes that we are often “busy with [our] own pursuits” and “defend [ourselves] from the child and isolate the child”, thereby repressing his developmental energies.

The methods of repression and isolation have changed over the decades: children were once locked away in nurseries and are now abandoned in front of the TV. However, the consequences remain the same. A child who is not allowed to freely pursue his own development will never know what he is capable of. He will have “an imperfect self-consciousness and what psychoanalysts call the ‘inferiority complex’,” which results in “…the wish to possess and dominate.”

Dr. Montessori goes a step further in the analysis of the phenomenon:

“This lessening of the personality of the child… also comes from lack of liberty in the joys of his own work. The difference for us resides in the instinct to work, and this does not derive from a mere notion (as psychoanalytic theory did), but from our experience that it is work which normalizes.”

We should note that “work” in Montessori has always referred to freely chosen, open-ended, productive hands-on activities that not only allow the child to learn a skill or concept but, more importantly, support his psychological development at each stage of growth.  A normalized child is one who can “become conscious of his own powers”, and with our guidance will understand the destiny of humanity. This child will then be able not only to adapt to the supra environment on his own, but also “realize his own greatness and beauty and… go forward and reign.”

In this powerful and timeless speech, Dr. Montessori is calling on adults to protect the child’s natural development by giving him the freedom to engage in work that will strengthen his mind, body and spirit. A child who is allowed to develop fully in the first years of life becomes a leader who adapts easily to the modern world and uses his talents for the benefit of all.

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Choosing a Montessori School: Uninterrupted work period

Imagine you arrive at work at 8am, energized and ready to work on a fun but challenging project that will require several hours of your time.  You know that to really get the project on solid footing and make sense of its complexity, you need several hours of uninterrupted focus.  You sit down at your desk, fire up your computer, and start organizing your thoughts.  Suddenly, a reminder pops up on your computer screen:

Mandatory staff meeting @ 8:45am.

Now, answer this question truthfully: Knowing that you have to leave your project aside in 45 minutes, would you use your time to focus on challenging tasks that require your undivided attention, or would you take it easy for 45 minutes, checking your e-mail, refilling your coffee cup, and sneaking a peek at Facebook?

Yeah, I’d choose the latter, too.

What does this have to do with Montessori?  All Montessori educators are familiar with what we call the “three-hour work period”.  As the name suggests, this is a three-hour chunk of time in the morning in which the children receive presentations, choose materials, have snack, and work at their own pace on activities that interest them. (Note: All AMI-recognized schools also have a two-hour uninterrupted work period in the afternoon for children ages 4 and older).  A quality Montessori school will not have a single interruption during the work period: no Spanish teacher coming into the classroom; no music instructor pulling kids out; no physical education taking place on the basketball courts.

Dr. Montessori discovered that a child as young as three, who has spent a few months in the Montessori classroom, is able to choose productive and challenging work, focus on the task at hand, finish a cycle of work, rest without interrupting those who are working, and repeat this sequence.  She noted that for this to happen, a minimum of three hours of uninterrupted classroom time are essential.  Of her experiences observing children during an uninterrupted work period, she noted: “Each time a polarization of attention took place, the child began to be completely transformed, to become calmer, more intelligent, and more expansive.”

True cognitive and personal development – the type that takes place in a Montessori classroom – cannot happen in 45-minute spurts.

In Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, Angeline Stoll Lillard points out that, “Montessori teachers who adhere to three-hour work periods without interruption claim one can see the difference in the quality of the children’s concentration on days when children know they will be leaving the classroom in an hour for a field trip or doctor’s appointment or special music class.”  Children who know they will soon be interrupted choose unchallenging “busywork” at best, and at worst become nuisances to their peers.  Even more tragic are children who don’t know an interruption is coming; they choose demanding work, become engrossed, and are understandably upset when the disruption takes place.

While interruptions are part and parcel of traditional education methods, they just aren’t necessary in Montessori.  The beauty of the Montessori “curriculum” (for lack of a better word) is that it encompasses EVERYTHING that children should be exposed to in school.  The usual “pull-out” subjects like art, music, physical education, drama, and yoga are all found within a well-prepared Montessori classroom.  It might not look like what you experienced in school, but then again, doesn’t everything in Montessori look different than traditional education?  It’s a good kind of different; it’s a different that makes sense – a different that works!

You might be thinking, “How can one teacher know and teach everything?”.  She doesn’t.  But she also doesn’t have to.  The materials are carefully designed to capture the child’s interest and guide him in the learning process.  The child’s drive for knowledge and the material’s self-correcting qualities are the true teachers – the adult just brings the child and the material together as a kind of middleman of the learning process.

Some parents might worry: “Won’t my child get tired of working?  Doesn’t he need a break every 45 minutes or so?”  Dr. Montessori addresses this concern in The Advanced Montessori Method, Vol. I: “A great variety of interesting research has been made into the question of change of work with identical results – namely, that frequent change of work causes greater fatigue than continuous work of one kind, and that a sudden interruption is more fatiguing than persistence.”  Stoll Lillard adds, “If we choose when to take breaks, then breaks work for us, but if the timing is externally imposed, breaks can be disruptive to concentration.”

Dr. Montessori concludes: “The one means by which exhaustion can be eliminated is to make work pleasant and interesting, to give joy in work rather than pain.”

If you are looking for a Montessori school for your child, make sure to ask if they respect the three-hour morning work period WITHOUT INTERRUPTIONS (and don’t forget the afternoon work period for your older child!!).  And if you’re a teacher, make sure you protect the three-hour work period with your life!

Would this child have chosen to learn about Europe if he only had 45 minutes?
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Some Light Summer Reading

I was recently asked to make a list of books that help parents understand Montessori, and I realized it would make a good resource on this blog.  Check out the “Recommended Reading” page and feel free to suggest your favorites in the comments!  Happy reading!

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How To Observe in a Montessori Classroom

The wonderful guys and gals at Montessori Madmen have shared this insightful guide to observation (originally provided by Little Things Montessori).  A Montessori classroom can seem as odd and confusing as an exotic foreign country, so consider this article your travel guide!

When I was a teacher, I was often frustrated by how parents behaved when they came to observe the classroom.  They would talk to each other, walk around the room, talk on their cell phones (yes, I’m not kidding), engage the children, and even try to help them accomplish activities they were perfectly capable of doing on their own!!  I had to remind myself that they weren’t being rude on purpose – they just hadn’t been educated on the importance of being “invisible” during observation.  

I hope every parent of a Montessori child takes a few moments to read this guide.  I love that it’s written using positive and encouraging language that doesn’t overwhelm or belittle parents who are new to Montessori.  Well done, Little Things Montessori!