My cell phone provider made a change in their system which affected my being able to access my phone messages. So I called the virtual customer service technician who then made the changes I needed to be able to retrieve my messages. While I had him on the phone I remembered to ask him if my cell phone would work in our vacation destination, Argentina. He told me that my particular cell phone would work in all of the states. I said something like, “Wait a minute, Argentina isn’t a state,” to which he replied that it sounded like a state to him. Now before you lose all faith in the American system of education let me tell you that I was talking to a fellow North American, a Canadian! But that doesn’t really get us off the hook because we know that all too many Americans couldn’t name all 50 states or even the countries of the continent to our south.
I just walked through the Elementary I classroom where the 6 to 9 year olds are studying geography with the beautiful Montessori puzzle maps, the ones that don’t have any names on the puzzle pieces. One by one, each child picks up a colored puzzle piece and calls out the name of the state or country until the entire map’s pieces are lying on the mat surrounding the puzzle frame. They’re showing us that geography is child’s play, at least in a Montessori setting. Whether it was because Maria Montessori was a European where it’s still important to know the neighboring countries that touch one’s borders like states touch ours or because a hundred years ago people took the study of geography more seriously, geography is a vital part of the cultural program in a Montessori school. Sometimes I think we don’t really appreciate the gift our children receive when they become so knowledgeable about the political geography of our planet. At first glance it’s impressive when a small child is able to say the names of the continents or the planets or name the countries of a continent. Traditional schools don’t usually teach political geography until middle school, so hearing smaller children know this stuff makes us think the children must really be smart. But it’s not that, really. Oh, of course your children are smart, but their knowledge of geography isn’t how we measure your children’s intelligence. Rather their knowledge of geography is a reflection of what their school values for them to learn and subsequently what they’re being taught.
Most of us parents think a lot about reading and mathematics, and well we should; both are important, but they are not the only subjects that define one’s education or the worth of one’s education. We must look deeper, as Montessori did, into the nature of the child at each stage of the child’s development to know what to teach, what to offer for the child, and what to expect from the child. Unless we begin looking at the children and learning about them our curriculum will never be well suited for the child but will only require that the child herself amend herself to what we’re teaching.
We Montessorians think that children deserve more than a blue-plate special, more than a standard curriculum dissected and sliced for incremental bites. They deserve a smorgasbord of lessons that are not only interesting, challenging, and inviting, but that are also related to the inner needs of the child and that change and adapt as the child inevitably changes and matures.
At a time in our history where knowing exactly where Iran or Nigeria or Argentina are may make the difference between having a world vision or being stuck in the mud, we need to realize the value of a school whose curriculum is bold, overt, and founded on understanding the needs and characteristics of the children it teaches. My mentor, Dr. Caleb Gattegno, originator of the “Words in Color” reading approach, used to say, “the truth walks slowly and has short legs” as a metaphor for reminding me to be patient and tolerant of others who took so long to see things I felt were obvious. Well, it’s been 100 years since the first Montessori Children’s House was created and I think the truth about children and their learning is still moving slowly through our senses. Someone needs to nudge us a bit, and I’m willing to do that for you, over and over again, because your child is worth it.
Probably one of the most misunderstood times of a person’s life is what we call adolescence, especially the years from 12 to 15. Not only are these years difficult for the person who is living them, but this is a challenging time for those of us educators and parents who interface with these youngsters, too. It’s even harder for us if the child about with whom we’re interacting is our first-born child. Oh, the first-born child – forever an enigma! Once we think we’ve got the hang of the child, she changes ages, gets older, and we transform again into inexperienced parents. Fortunately when the next child comes around, we can be more confident because we’re no longer parent novices. To exacerbate this problem further, we parents unfortunately judge ourselves as parents by how well our first born does! So we’re even more vested in how that child does in every aspect of life. And you know what, that makes us not quite as good as we could be, because when we focus on judging ourselves, we’re misdirected and our child knows it. This in turn causes him to focus on us, on either pleasing or not pleasing us, rather than focusing on his job – namely that of becoming the best person he can become, the one who is the truest to himself. How wonderful it would be for each child, if she could be free to become who she needs to become. But we parents are afraid to trust that, so instead and with a well meaning attitude we guide our child to become what we think he should become in order to have a good, happy life. That’s a natural way for us to think and behave. But it causes a lot of avoidable conflict in our relationship with our adolescents.
As a proponent for the child at every age Maria Montessori did what no one before did and few since have done. She studied the adolescent, his characteristics, and his needs. She found what has been confirmed by modern day scientists, that in early puberty the adolescent finds it hard to concentrate on academic and structured learning. There is a decline in his motivation from elementary school into middle school probably because of puberty. So Maria Montessori decided it wasn’t right to match traditional schooling to the budding adolescent, who is so full of exploding hormones and consequently unsure of himself, full of self-doubt even. No, Maria Montessori did not see the adolescent as a miniature high schooler. She did not create junior high schools or middle schools that were patterned after high schools. Instead she created a unique curriculum appropriate for the adolescent. It was called Earth School, or Erdkinder. In her school adolescent children would live in a communal setting, away from their families and close to nature, eat fresh farm products, and carry on practical work related to the economics of supplying food, shelter, transportation and so forth. Intellectual work would still be done, but only of the child’s interests and free of all pressure.
But, you protest, we can’t send our adolescents off to the farm today. America isn’t an agrarian society anymore. And you’re right. A lot has changed from 100 years ago when Maria Montessori began her work. But what hasn’t changed is the biology of the child, and that is something we shouldn’t overlook.
… to be continued
Off to the Farm- part 2
Let’s look at today’s research and see if we can find what’s right for today’s adolescent. Researchers tell us that adolescents need opportunities to develop higher order “formal” thinking skills through reasoning, debate, and personal expression. They need a broad academic curriculum emphasizing the interrelationship of subject areas and practical “hands-on” experiences. There needs to be a sense of community among teachers and students to establish the classroom as a safe place to learn and grow.
Academic competition between students and contests with limited winners need to be de-emphasized and group work needs to be encouraged so that team building and leadership skills can be developed. (According to Tom Friedman in his best seller about the global economy, The World is Flat, these skills are the ones adults of the future will need to be successful.) Focus should be on the process rather than the final product with an acceptance of learning from one’s mistakes, allowing students to redo work, and encouraging students to take academic risks. Emphasis should move from the departmentalized approach to curriculum to thematic and interdisciplinary approaches. Problem solving and comprehension should be encouraged rather than rote learning, memorization, and over-used worksheets and textbooks. The use of extrinsic rewards, the imposition of deadlines, and an emphasis on evaluations decrease intrinsic motivation. It is important to recognize that students’ early attempts at regulating their own work may not always be successful. Teachers must remember that good decision making and time management require practice. Teachers can help students gain these skills by providing limited choices between acceptable options, by assisting with breaking large tasks into manageable pieces, and by providing guidelines for students to use in monitoring their own progress. And finally, adolescents need social experiences that teach students how to be active, contributing members of their society.
What has just been described by today’s research is the program that Dr. Edidin (Robin) has created in our Montessori middle school. It might seem strange to you because it wasn’t what you experienced; you might not be comfortable with it. You might not realize how essential a program like this can be for your child’s future academic success. You might not even know how to respond to your child’s perception of it. But for your children, for every middle school child, it’s just what the researchers have found works best. This kind of program helps the young adolescent succeed on his path to become the best of himself, the best for himself. Isn’t that what we all truly want?
Probably the furthest idea in your head is that your child would quit school at the age of maturity, 16. I imagine it was also far from my grandparents’ minds, too, so I can almost imagine how they felt about Lloyd’s decision to quit school at the then permitted age of only 14. Of course a youngster of that age could not possibly project the consequences of such a choice; he would probably have to live them to understand the lifetime weight of such a decision. So Uncle Lloyd faltered and jumped blindly into the abyss!
My grandfather, Henry Hummel, was a proud man, the son of German immigrants. When he heard Lloyd’s decision, he asked Lloyd if he would like to be his driver. It seemed to Henry a perfect solution for both since having a driver would contribute to Henry’s need for importance and it would be a job Lloyd and probably every other 14-year-old boy of his time would love. But it was not an idea that my grandmother liked at all. However, by the time Uncle Lloyd told her what he did the deed was completed and he was well on his way to becoming a chauffeur for his father! My grandmother sighed, relinquished her position, and ultimately accepted Lloyd’s fate for at least the time being.
And so for several months life went on for Lloyd and his father. Uncle Lloyd was happy driving Henry around town and was eager to be of service to his father at any moment. But one day something happened that changed all that. Henry got very ill and, within a matter of a few weeks, died. Not only was this a family tragedy, Henry leaving his wife alone to care for their young family of five children ages 14, 12, 9, 7, and 4, but it was a personal crisis for Lloyd who now had no means of employment. Life was transformed immediately for all of them. Minnie, Uncle Lloyd’s mother, took on Henry’s job as superintendent of the Lancaster, Ohio Old Folks Home. But with so many small children to raise she was unable to properly assume that job which had included a residence for the Hummel family as well. Now she was out a job and out a place for her and the children to live. Fortunately, Henry’s older sister, Rosie, was sympathetic to Minnie’s situation and she was also financially able to help Minnie. Rosie provided Minnie and the children with a duplex in which to live which would also produce an income from the rental of the other half of the building. Minnie and the children left Lancaster and moved to Columbus, Ohio. Before leaving, Minnie sold Henry’s car.
Uncle Lloyd arrived in the city thinking he could find work easily. But because he was not skilled or educated, there were few jobs for which he could qualify. He spent several days looking for work without finding anything. Finally, he got a job at the corner grocery store bagging groceries and then delivering them to the customers’ homes. Now Uncle Lloyd was a healthy and strong young man, but he was worn out every day after work from walking as he delivered groceries to so many houses. He longed for the times he was in his father’s car, driving him all over Lancaster, feeling like an important person.
I would like to be able to tell you that by looking ahead at Uncle Lloyd’s life one could see a successful grown man. But alas, I cannot. This one decision to quit school could never be undone and its effects plagued Uncle Lloyd throughout his adult lifetime. Now I am sure that there are people who have made poor decisions as youngsters who managed to recover from them and to create successful lives nonetheless, but this was not the case for Uncle Lloyd; he was never able to turn his life around. The only redeeming part of this story is that if one listens and thinks about Uncle Lloyd, it is possible to learn from his mistakes without suffering the way he did! It’s called learning by proxy and it’s available to all of us, including our children!
Director/Elementary 1 Teacher