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.


Shannon said...

Susan, Thank you so much for all the great Montessori ideas! Your pictures are VERY helpful as well. I have nominated you for the blogger with a purpose award. Come check out my blog to see it!

Montessori Mama said...

I love these photos as they remind me of a little friend of mine who loves to build with these materials also. Thank you for your thoughtful writing and inspiring ideas!
aka Montessori Mama

Amy said...

I have been inspired by your experiences and have introduced the idea of exploring with the sensorial materials to the older children in my class. Suddenly, children who have not been drawn to sensorial in months are challenging themselves to see what new, interesting ideas they can come up with; an unexpected problem/blessing is that since the "popular" materials are out all at once, kids are discovering some of the lesser used materials as well! Thank you so much for your wonderful blog!

Susan Dyer said...

Thanks to all of you for your feed back. I am grateful for each of your responses. Susan Dyer "The Moveable Alphabet."

Myra said...

Susan, I am just loving exploring your blog. Because of this post, I have also opened the door for my children on creating designs with the sensorial materials. It has been a beautiful experience. My only question is, do you draw a line somehow at pretending with the materials when it turns into play? My problem is when a group gathers and it gets noisy and attracts too many children. How do you explain this line to the children in a way that still allows exploration? Also, have you considered publishing your blog writing and photos into a book? Montessori guides would love it!
Myra Arnold in St Paul, MN

Susan Dyer said...

Dear Myra from Minnesota - First off I need to say that I got my AMI training from the Minnesota Montessori Training Center in St. Paul a decade or so ago.

Funny that you mentioned the line between play and exploration as my assistant and I were discussing this today. It takes listening and watching closely. Also, like all materials, I limit the number of children who may engage in this work - generally two. Also, if the work looks messy and there is a lot of talking - back to the shelf the works go. I look for organized sorting of size, shape and color, for deliberate placement and balance - concentrated work with some conversation. What I do if I am a little concerned that the children are "playing" instead of exploring is I sit very near the children. Remember too that this type of exploration may have been discouraged and now they are experiencing this surge of freedom. While I sit near them I inquire about their "discoveries," note how interesting their designs are - ask if they could explain it to me as I am soooo curious as to what they are constructing. I encode their work with constructive language to subtly guide them back. If they walk on the work or mishandle it - they need to put it away and let other children do the work.

And thank you for the suggestion about the book - never thought of it - I am so busy at school and then writing the blog - good thought.

P.S. I will make this a post about where to draw the line over the weekend when I write about the puzzle/sight words.

Susan Dyer
The Moveable Alphabet