Sunday, March 1, 2015

Toddler Engagement in Geography, Mapping, Habitats and The Naming of Animals - Part 1

I dreamed this dream where the continent work that I was so familiar with inside the Primary classroom was disassembled and then reassembled in such a way that very young children could roam from one continent to another with ease and agility and in so doing learn the names of a diverse population of animals and their habitats. Too, they would wander across landscapes in such a way that they would engrave upon it roads and trails which intersected with the pathways of other living beings via models of those.

Yet, first, before all of that, they would identify the tracks made by an animal and  then another. Simultaneously, this would be their first notion of beginning and ending; of movement via one marking and then another. (I will save the mathematical implications for Part 2 or 3.) They would differentiate between a split hoof and a paw. And they would create prints of said creatures while uttering their names.

This would be a reconfiguration of the narrative Where the Wild Things Are as it would replace fictional creatures with those named polar bear and  penguin; these were the first two. Later the list would grow and include harbor seal, baboon, racoon, cow, five types of bear (polar bear, brown bear, black bear, Kodiak bear and panda bear), pig, ermine, and so many more.

Another layer of the above would be mural painting. Yes, toddlers painting murals. Utilizing table lengths sheets of art paper, the children would collectively paint a landscape of colors and, in a similar fashion to the Montessori saying, "Take a walk with the chalk," they would stretch across this field of paper and mark it with the paints on their brush. These markings would swirl, arch, circle back onto themselves and, now and then, ebb into a wave that one could almost hear splash against the beach of white paper. Too, jazz music would whisper to them as they marked the world with their first inscriptions. Yes, I dreamed all of this too and then gathered the materials I needed. That gathering continues, as do the dreams.

I knew within my very being that as soon as the children where guided how to use these materials and given the language they needed to engage them, that I would soon be watching them act in a way that was so very natural to them that it would serve as a profound confirmation that there exits an organic connection between the very young and the natural world. I would soon see all of that and wonder to myself about so many things. I ask even now if children have their own mythos; if they have their own language. I have seen one child use a babbled language constructed of vowels and consonants that no adult could translate, yet another child sat and listened to in such a way that it spoke of comprehension.


In the beginning, I focused on one continent - Antarctica.  I brought two animals to school as noted above: the polar bear and the penguin. The children and I sat together. I introduced each of the two animals to my students and repeated their names, bear and penguin, many times. Next, I engaged all the children in making salt dough.

When the dough was made, it was broken into pieces and shared with each. This was an opportunity for the children to simply enjoy the tactical qualities of the dough. (I also dusted each piece with flour so that it wouldn't stick as much to the tablecloth and to their hands.)

Rolling pins were used to flatten the surface. Those flat, orb like masses would also serve as their first introduction to the land-form: island. 

The next day, I brought those first two animals to the table and taught them how to press their paws and flippers into the dough to make prints. They were amazed. There was visual evidence that an impression was made and that impression remained after the animal was moved to another area. Initial introduction to cause and effect, before and after.

They did it over and over - pressing and imprinting.

My mind now reminds me of Sumerian cylinder seals and the markings that were left when they rolled across clay.

This is what the children were creating too. An archive of textual / gestural markings that recorded the evidence of their work. Does it matter that their hieroglyphics were composed of the markings of paws and hoofs -  an image based narrative similar to those made by cave dwellers centuries ago?

Lascaux Cave Paintings – Prehistoric Art in the Dordogne, France 

Christmas was soon upon us, so the children made salt dough ornaments with the impressions of a bear paw and a penguin's flipper imprinted on them. When it came time to paint them, they too appeared to visually echo islands.

I spread lengths of paper across the tables. Too, I spilled small amounts of blue paint into art cups for the children to use for painting their ornaments. Also, for a visual reference to water and waterways when their brush swept across the "Antarctica" landscape. Again, we used the polar bear and penguin as inhabitants of this "ice" covered continent. I could not have anticipated what I witnessed as it was spell binding to watch. One of my assistants joined in the painting. Her ornamental illustrations in blue highlighted  their painted arches and markings.

I see an island studied landscape inhabited by a polar bear and a penguin. I see waterways and pathways. I see engagement and wonderment acted out with ease and agility. I see outstretch arms traveling the course of a white landscape. It was the first time I watched them engage this way with the materials. It was not the last. Far from it, actually. As the weeks passed, we added more animals and built habitats on the white field of art paper. Too, we made our own flags and we anchored those  into mounds of salt dough that visually represented mountains. Waterways that were once blue lines slowly shaped into rivers and gave birth to oceans.

Discoveries were called out  by one child or another that had examined the anatomical correct models of each of the animals so many times that they spotted similarities and differences. Behold a creature with utters on this animal and this one too, yet they are not the same! Toddlers didn't  speak these words but instead held up the models of a pig and a cow and said, "Milk." I laughed and rejoiced at their good findings and at how their great minds expressed themselves when they were provided materials which served their needs.

So very much and even more. Photos of the above discoveries will be shared in  Part 2. Soon...and then 3 & 4. Promise.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Toddler Environment. My Field Work Continues...

It's been awhile since I have written a post, yet I am here often. Yes, I frequently return to my blog as it truly is the diary of my Montessori life. Yet, unlike my private diary where I make almost daily entries including sketches and story outlines, my blog posts are often a collection of those daily tidbits woven into a scene and/or specific lesson overview. Therefore, one post may be the result of weeks, or even months, of work.

My current classroom has changed, again. I am no longer at Toad Hill Montessori School in Madison, Wisconsin. Too, I am currently not in a primary classroom. I am now the lead teacher of the toddler classroom at Sonnet Montessori School in Prior Lake, Minnesota. I am not a trained toddler guide. Yet, I have spent much time substitute teaching in toddler environments within the Boston area. I was also fortunate to attend the 2001 Paris International Montessori Congress, which is where I heard Dr. Silvana Montanaro speak. I still recall much of her speech. It whispers in my ear now and then when I am working with my young students and guides me along this new path in my Montessori career. Too, it calls upon me to bear witness to the work being done before me. Work that a  Montessori friend recently referred to as both spiritual and majestic.

I have much to write. I will reach back now and again to the work done by my students at Toad Hill and by the elders I worked with at the Bridge in Juneau, Alaska. Many new pages with soon be added to my Montessori diary.

*A note to my long time readers. The Moveable Alphabet is now available on Kindle via Amazon.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

"Nothing goes into the mind that does not first go through the hands."

I was told this quote when I was taking my AMI training at the Montessori Training Center of Minnesota almost 20 years ago. I was told it was a modified version of the Aristotle quote,“There is nothing in the intellect that was not first developed in the senses." I have repeated it more times than I can count to assistants, parents, heads of schools and non-Montessorians as a means of explaining a component of the method referred to as sensorial education.

Watching a child do a work with a blindfold on has always served as visual evidence of the hand-mind connection. Too, this notion of the mind gaining access to knowledge through the hand reinforced my educated belief in the value of muscular memory.

I often speak of having a greater understanding of both the direct and indirect purposes of the Montessori materials via my own touching of said materials and the muscular memory that is stored within me due to that touching over a period of fifteen plus years. My cultivated hand-mind relationship has provided me the opportunity to speculate on the harmonic interplay between all of the materials in the classroom. It is those speculations which serve my own leaps towards abstraction in the form of extensions.

Recently, I have been turning the phrase, "Nothing goes into the mind that does not first go through the hands," over and over again in my mind, asking myself if I truly understand what it means for something to "go through the hands." It seems a concrete, and even obvious, statement. Simply explained, the hands are the instruments of the mind. You touch something and immediately information regarding its texture, temperature, color and, possibly, weight is gathered and recorded. That is easy enough to comprehend. Yet, I have been asking myself whether or not I really get the more abstract qualities of grasping something.

I have been captivated by the gesturing my older students make with their hands when they are formulating an opinion or leaping towards a greater understanding of a complex concept. It appears as if they are wrestling out an idea they have in their minds and that they are using their hands to give shape or form to that otherwise invisible and newly born notion.

When I am authoring a blog post or an article and I have to describe in detail elements of lessons I have given, I hold one of my hands up in the air so as to mold it in various ways so that I may re-imagine the geometric forms my students create or the cursive letters they form. As my fingers shift and light spills through the gaps between them, my thoughts synthesize and are then manifested onto the page or screen via my hands and the tools needed, i.e., pencil, keyboard, etc.

I am now recalling one of the fundamental laws in physics which states for every motion there is an equal and opposite motion. Therefore,  the statement, "Nothing goes into the mind that does not go first through the hands," should be couple with the following, "Nothing goes into the hands that does not first go through the mind." This duality may also be viewed as an infinite loop; an infinite dialog of input and output / output and input.

Here, again, I pose the question, "What is implied by the statement to go through the hands?" Does form have to have a physicality to it or can it simply be the shape of an idea expressed through the hands? And once that shape is formed, is it then measured and valued by the very hands that first gave it form? The sequence would then be: mental idea, wrestling of idea into an invisible form via the hands, qualities of that form assessed by the hands and recorded in the mind, mind expresses form via hands into a physical, i.e., concrete object - an infinite looping of sequential actions.

Why is this important for a lead guide to acknowledge within the Montessori classroom? Every child should be provided the opportunity and the freedom to give expression to their gathered and reflected upon ideas. Every child should be provided enough non-lesson time to engage in an inner dialogue with themselves. This inner dialog maintains the input / output loop as it processes new information, synthesizes it with old and provides opportunity for the two to merge into an abstract revelation. This is the developing and advancing of the child as a unique individual who's singular insights serve to both define himself/herself and to support the collective community of the entire classroom. Those children who actualizes this are the active citizens of their current arena, the classroom, and of the future: entrepreneurs, politicians, humanitarians and more.

Next time you sit down to write observations in your classroom, dedicate time to noting the origami of hand movements your older students make. Then, after several moments of observing, approach a couple of them with large sheets of white paper and ask them to illustrate all that they are thinking. Make sure the paper is large enough to give expression to their ideas and that, too, they have sharp pencils available to them.  After you have provided them with these tools and a place to work, go and work with a few younger children and serve their needs.

Twenty minutes later, or so, casually find a seat near those students sketching out their ideas and, with calm, centered energy, ask them to tell you all about what they are working on, to add more details to their work, to think one more thought along with all the other thoughts they have had and prompt this thought-seeking with open-ended questions such as, "What opens in the morning and closes in the evening?" "What's the shape of that thing?"

Finally, lean back in your chair, lift up your own hands and let them dance through the air for just a moment and then place them back on your lap. Now get ready to watch and to listen to the great genius of young children's minds and view them wrestle out into the open air their ideas regarding physics, geometry, math, art and all that defines humanity. Lastly, do not weep at the wonder of it all. Rejoice in the gift of your role as a guide.

Later, at home, when sitting amongst friends and family, re-tell the story of Helen Keller and her great accomplishments, of Einstein's frequent walks with Madame Curie and their vivid conversations, of children gesturing profound thoughts through their small cupped hands, each etched with map lines before their own birth. And as you tell all these stories, let your hands take flight and see before you the shape of all that occupies your own thoughts.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Building with Blocks - Activities for the Elderly

Every now and then you just have to grab a bucket of blocks and go with it. Last week I did just that. An art activity led by a member of the local Alzheimer's Association had just concluded. I observed most of the seniors were still sitting at the tables where the activity was held and chatting. I had a bean bag tossing game scheduled but on my way to get the bean bags, I passed a tub of blocks that were designed to build cathedrals. I had never used blocks with a group of seniors before, but for whatever reason I knew this was the moment to grab them and go; so I did.

I placed the bucket on the table and started putting handfuls of blocks in front of each of the sitting seniors. Two other seniors nearby saw what I was doing and came over to join in the fun. Soon everyone was making comments about how long it had been since they had used blocks. "I feel like a kid again," one senior commented. Another stated that she had used building blocks that had letters on them when she was a child in the 1920's and that was how she learned to spell words.

After a few minutes what had initially began as just happenstance fun turned into architectural and sculptural design. Elements of spatial and sequential placement was simultaneously in play. Play became an interesting word in regards to describing the movement of their hands as they reached for one block and then another. Soon I was visualizing chess moves.  It brought back memories of my art writing years and stories of Marcel Duchamp and his chess playing as an aesthetic action.

As the number of participants increased, the number of blocks available for each decreased. While another staff member worked with the seniors, I went and retrieved a set of colorful cubes that bore geometric patterns. As soon as I placed these on the table, one of the participating seniors pushed away her wooden blocks and began working with them.

She turned the cubes over and over until she found the side she wanted and was building with. This selective action / decision making added an additional cognitive skill to the block "playing."

After several minutes of concentrated work, she invited me to view what she had constructed. It was her design and it was art.

Another senior wanted to work with the cubes and so they were dismantled and passed on. Soon the senior who had been using the cubes was experimenting with random structures.

The cubes in use by the second senior were repositioned...

And soon a new pattern and construction emerged. She was so pleased by her assemblage.

One of the Tlingit seniors placed her two-three piece "sculptures" inches apart and the placement had such an interesting spatial quality about it that it made you think of sacred sites like Stonehenge in England.

Her pieces were also dialogues on balance and relationships. Minimalist in design while weighted in associative history.

And oh yes, castles where built with fortresses and motes filled with water created by torn blue construction paper.

Battles were imagined and spoken of. Conquest were celebrated as blocks were moved and rearrange.

A third senior asked for the cubes and he pieced together one last assemblage.

It was a great activity. Blocks will be used a little more often at the Bridge. Who knows what they might build next...