Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Phases of the Moon

How does a child leap from buttered toast to the phases of the moon? He masters the metal insets by returning to them again and again, year after year. Then in a flash of a moment, when the physical world is suddenly seen as geometric composition, he makes a leap towards abstraction and discovers in a metal inset and its frame the phases of the moon.

I have some pretty strict rules regarding the use of the metal insets. First, the child must always take out both the frame and the inset. The frame provides a constant reference to the shape being traced. Secondly, the colored pencils in the metal insets area are to be used for that work and that work alone. And, all though this is not a complete list, the children may not color hearts and rainbows all over the paper making the work an art exercise instead of a handwriting one. I always have drawing paper available for children who want to sketch or to draw a picture, so this is not a denial of artistic expression but rather a seperation of materials for the acquisition of specific skills.

So when I saw Jack take out the quadrafoil and begin tracing it while it was only two-thirds on the paper, my silly-metal-inset-drawings radar started blinking. But, I reminded myself that this was a very focused and skilled student who was also one of my oldest students. So I waited a few minutes before calmly wandering over to his table to catch sight of what he was doing.

"Miss Dyer, doesn't this look just like a slice of bread," he said looking quite excited about his discovery. I know that his mother is an excellent baker and could immediately see what he had described. I decided he was not hiding behind this work or misusing it but rather finding geometry in everyday objects. A few moments later I heard him tell a classmate that he loves jelly on his bread. I later viewed his "bread" drawing colored in purple. He drew a second slice of bread but this time placed a couple pats of butter on the now toasted (colored brown) slice of bread instead of jam.

He returned the quadrafoil to the metal insets shelf and went back to his table with the triangle. A few moments later he showed me the star he had made which was now colored blue.

After returning the triangle, he started walking away with the circle metal inset and frame. He took a few steps and looked down with a startled expression. He then walked over to me and said, "Look Miss Dyer, the phases of the moon."

I could see that he had slid the frame over the inset and the shape that was made was of a cresent. Besides the obvious image, I was surprised to hear him call the image, "Phases of the moon." Before I knew it he was settled down at a table with a piece of black paper and a white pencil. He said, "I want to first draw the full moon, Miss Dyer," and he did. Then he drew several other phases of the moon. Before long he had started drawing a picture of the moon with a comet flaring across the sky and a rocketship in the foreground. He worked all morning on this. I was instantly reminded of the work he had done in September assembling and painting a space shuttle.

Cristina and I looked at his work just before going home. I talked about how many teachers I know who don't allow any extensions or art with the metal insets. I confessed to my own strict rules regarding using multiple sheets of metal inset paper for the drawing of hearts and such within the shapes. She wisely said, "Yes, but you knew Jack wasn't doing that. Would he have ever found the phases of the moon if you had stopped him when he was drawing pats of butter on his quadrafoil slice of bread?" The answer was obvious. His discovery arose from the three freedoms offered him: the freedom to move, the freedom to chose work and the freedom to repeat that work. It is via the repetition of work that discoveries and insights are found. Jack found the celestial universe. That is one huge find!

(PS. The Phases of the Moon cards are available at Montessori for Everyone.)

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