Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Leap Towards Abstraction: Updated

My afternoon class has a few students in it that enjoy manipulating several sensorial materials at the same time. Many of us are familiar with children constructing a maze to walk around in using the red rods.

Even the first image, which shows the work of a child who built a tower with both the pink tower and the brown (broad) stairs, is often seen. This work, while wonderful and does in fact require a lot of concentration, is formulaic to me. It is something the adults in the environment love to see; a well organized, deliberate action requiring both concentration and hand control to produce a work we have all seen in our albums or in those of other Montessori teachers. And while yes, there is much in regards to the child finding similarities between size, weight and shape there is not what I would call a leap towards abstraction - a study in architecture, balance and space.

Most recently, a couple of children (5 year olds) have been making that leap. They have spent hours planning, discussing and constructing amazing structures that reveal their deep understanding of the materials themselves. Of course all of the materials are put away when they are finished which ultimately is a lot of work and yet they do it so easily and so correctly that it echoes the joy that they had using them.

The child who constructed the above, both pictures are the same work, told a few of his classmates how it required much concentration and a steady hand. What I enjoyed about this work was noting the other children around the room looking up from their own work now and again quietly acknowledging the progress of the construction.

This reminded me of watching museum videos of sculptors like David Smith and Richard Sierra. I become captivated witnessing the internal vision of these artists materialized. When the type of work in the above photographs is done in my classroom I observe: 1. the vision of a child materialized through purposeful, abstract work 2. the quiet stimulation of the audience; those students who bear witness to its actualization.

I asked one student after he had spent a long time doing such work what he was thinking. He walked over to the easel and said, "I'll show you Miss Dyer." The below is what he drew. Note the three pink cubes of the tower held in his mind.

And then something else was added: a blindfold. One day I noticed a child who often has difficulty both choosing work and completing work very busy constructing the most interesting structure. It was very organized work with care given to each piece of material used. She was so focused on her work that the head of my school, who on occasion makes briefs visits to and observations of my classroom, asked if she was absent. She stayed with her work for more than an hour, longer than I had ever seen her commit herself to any of the materials. She told me she was making discoveries. There was not one person in the classroom that didn't look over at her work some time during the three hour work period. Everyone was very impressed. Only one thing left me puzzled, that is until I asked her. "Why was she wearing a blindfold pushed up just over her bangs?" Her answer, "It is the shield which keeps my thoughts in my head."

Let me explain at little more about her without telling to much as to violate confidentiality. She is a child who prefers fantasy to classification cards. When outside on the playground, she invents games involving ghosts living in the trees. I am not too concerned about this as my own Montessori son (up to the sixth grade) is a Tolkien devotee. Instead, I was/ am concerned that her imagination distracts her during presentations and limits her appreciation of concrete materials.

And in regards to the blindfold - I raked my brain trying to think of what I might have said during my presentation with her on using the blindfold with the mystery bag materials that she might have misunderstood or taken too literally. Maybe I said that the blindfold allowed her to stay focused on the objects in the bag and not to be distracted by what was happening in the other areas of the classroom. Did she extrapolate from those comments that the blindfold could help her keep her thoughts in her mind. I am left to wonder.

Yet, I do not deny her its use to make her discoveries. Instead, I watched her build this bridge between her imaginative self and the sensorial materials. She took the blindfold which she has used several times with the mystery bag and made this leap to do work - purposeful, focused work that revealed a great understanding of the relationships between the materials and their built in materialized abstractions. This simply means that sound, color, touch, etc are made tangible.

She spent days getting all of the sensorial materials not being used by other students out, working with them and then returning them to their proper places on the shelves. One day, another student put down working rugs near her work. On these rugs he laid out the planets and labeled them. I took a photo of these two works side by side so as to pose the question, "Are they not similar?"

Both resemble galaxies of scaled, physical objects. Both were arranged by children under the age of six. I can only answer this by stating that neither child was playing or misusing the materials - they were instead examining the relationships between objects and space; exploring the abstract.

Next, the child who laid out the planets and their labels began drawing a space shuttle on a large piece of paper. He said he was imagining the space shuttle moving between the planets - he aided the viewer by drawing an arrow pointing to planets and therefore helping to distinguish them from other markings. He drew a large plume of fire coming out of the end of the shuttle illustrating the burning of fuel. His imagination was grounded in the actuality of the specific objects he included in his drawing: planets, space shuttle, energy. As the other child's was grounded in concrete/mathematical values. He said he was "exploring the universe" and she said she was "making discoveries."

There is something else I want to add or acknowledge as if it too may be identified as a piece in this puzzle - both students - the one using the blindfold and the one who drew the space shuttle - are advanced readers. How much does a child's ability to read influence, expand or liberate his/her imagination?

* I need to take a deep breath...I am now pushing my invisible, pause button.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Push Pin Punch Work - One Continent, One State at a Time.

Children trace the stencil of the continent and then use the pin to punch out the shape.

Description of above photos: Children keep their work in a geography folder which my assistants make and record the completed continents so children don't repeat them. Later they glue them onto blue circles duplicating the continent map. Lastly, they paste printed labels, which they have cut from a sheet, onto the continents.

Push Pin work is a favorite in most Montessori classrooms. It is a great pre-scissor tool for our youngest students. Let me explain: After a child push pins the outline of a shape, he/she pulls away the surrounding paper to reveal the completed shape. This work is most often used in my classroom to punch out the shapes of the continents. Later, these pieces are glued onto large blue circles of construction paper in order for the children to construct their first maps. It is also used when I give a presentation designed for the older children who have mastered scissors to enable the younger students to also complete the work. A recent example is the portraits/busts of President George Washington and President Abraham Lincoln. This material is very familiar to the metal insets, only the shapes are of the two Presidents. Older children traced these and easily cut out the pattern. The younger children used push pins to complete the work.

But, more often the work is used in the construction of continent maps. However, just after the first month of school had passed, one of my older students decided she wanted to punch out each of the states in the United States. It took her several months to finish all of the states. Next, my assistant Jill taped two large pieces of tracing paper over the wooden United States map and the girl traced the outline of the entire map onto the paper. This became her guide for gluing down all of the states. Many children stopped by her table to witness her production. She was so focused on completing the work. On the day she finished it, her mother came early to school to pick it up to be framed. The child's entire school community and family honored her work and her commitment to finishing it.

The individual states were laid out in color groups making it easier for her to select one and glue it to its proper place on the traced out map.

It took her almost six hours to glue each state in place. This was after months of punching them out. Next, she cut out the entire map and glued it over an extra large sheet of blue paper. This is the work of a five year old Montessori child in our kindergarten program.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Presentations on Lake and Island - Lesson 2

A teacher posted on the Montessori by Hand yahoo group's bulletin board that in her training the land forms were made each time by the student. The materials needed are two small trays (I used black, plastic microwavable dinner dishes that I had brought in to recycle), brown non-hardening clay, one or two clay carving tools, a small pitcher for water and a small sponge. Also, a small canister to hold the clay while not in use. The decoration on the canister that I chose was of seashells and I found a matching small tray with the same.

Doing the land forms this way, rather than using pre-made molds from a Montessori materials supplier, allows the child to use their own hands to create the landforms and therefore gain a muscular and visual memory of the shapes. Also, working with clay strengthens a child's hand. Finally, the child has the liberty to shape the molds as they desire. They may create a volcano on the island or cliffs hanging over the island. The clay provides them creative input in the design of the miniature landscape.

As I presented this work a child raised his hand and stated that the shape of the island could fit into the cut out shape of the lake. I did not need to explain. In fact, I try not to explain too much so that the children feel that their statements come from their own discoveries/insights and not mine. What I did state, and I said these words as I poured water around each piece of molded clay, is the following, "An island is a body of land surrounded by water. A lake is a body of water surrounded by land."

The following set of pictures are those of a young four year old completing the work.

Presentations on Lake and Island: Lesson 1

I presented two new lessons on Lake and Island a few days ago. I had read several posts on the Montessori by Hand yahoo group bulletin board regarding land forms. There were two ideas that I really liked. The first was having a child trace a simple stencil onto brown construction paper. By cutting out the stenciled shape, the child makes both the lake and the island. The child then glues the lake and island cut-outs onto two separate pieces of blue paper - I used the blue paper in my metal inset box which is cut 5 1/2 " X 5 1/2" which is what I cut the brown construction paper to. The first child to do the work was very successful. After he glued each piece down, he began to draw several, small oval shapes inside the area of the blue lake. I asked what he was drawing and he answered very authoritatively, "The fish." It reminded me of a story I read about Maria Montessori observing a child coloring her drawing of a cow purple. Puzzled, she asked the child why she was making the cow purple. The child answered, "Because God forgot to make purple cows." Well, then, that makes sense and so does adding fish to a lake. Maria Montessori wrote, "Never underestimate the creative intelligence of children."

Paper Cutting Lake and Island

Note the school of fish in the last photograph.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Let the Confectionery Sugar Fall - What Bliss!

As promised, the confectionery sugar dusting had a second presentation which extended the work. Now the children are provided with two wafer-thin, plain gingerbread cookies to dust with confectionery sugar so as to perfect their bakery skills. Additionally, there were stencils added to the work. One of these I cut from a paper plate, the others belong to my assistant Jill. The metal discs are from her Spritz cookie maker. They worked wonderfully. The children have declared their love for this work. Those who have not yet celebrated their birthday now talk about being excited to decorate their cupcakes at school with the confectionery sugar tray. I am so pleased with the success of this work.

To view a slide show of this work go to the below and
click confectionery sugar dusting set