Monday, October 13, 2008
Regarding Extensions - Not All Outcomes Are The Same
"There is something insanely satisfying about finishing a project and having a little pile of scraps next to me. I am not a fan of finishing my knitting. Sewing the ends in is something I just cannot convince myself is okay, even though it means a project is finished," Nanny Shanny
Like all of us, I aspire to serve the child in greater and more comprehensive ways. I think this will always be a part of my on-going self work as a Montessori teacher. As I write this my trainer's (I actually had two) lecture on the "Transformation of the Adult" comes back to me, as well as the memory of all the tears I shed during my training and the first few years of teaching (and those that I occassionally still shed). The very phrase "follow the lead of the child" carries with it the notion or reality that the teacher/guide will be in an ongoing state of physical and mental motion. Following implies movement. I believe that we must remain fluid in our thoughts and our relationships with each child, while simultaneously preserving the method. That is no small task.
This may even cause other's to see Montessori teachers as uncertain, unprepared, always in a state of transition, unable to commit to lesson plans, and the list goes on. Or, they may see us as deeply committed individuals who daily prepare an environment, assess each child's individual academic needs, prepare lessons to meet those needs, advocate for young children to explore the universe while asking how and why and provide the materials / opportunities for them to answer their questions themselves. Again, not easy tasks. And too, we leave our desired/preferred outcomes at the door in regards to what children might achieve exploring the universe via extensions of works that they have mastered.
But, and this is what I struggled with for years, we need to not only guide them and at times assist them in finding work (for those less independent), we - and here is the biggy - need to help them to know when they are done.
This notion seems in opposition to so much about Montessori. They have the freedom to repeat work, to explore with the materials and to create with the materials. We love it when we view a child who has washed a table for most of a morning. We tell all our fellow guides how proud we are of their work. But there is an intrinsic moment, noticeable as a decline in detailed work or when work becomes play, that we might or should step forward and help the child become aware that his work is done.
This awareness that something is finished or that is has come to a conclusion is something so many creative adults struggle with. In several writers' workshops that I attended over the years, I heard the question "But when will I know my story is finished?" asked numerous times. Painters struggle with this too. "Maybe I should have stopped before I added those last strokes?" is something that I have heard artist friends of mine say. The opening quote to this post is a knitter who doesn't enjoy doing what is required to finish a project but savors the feeling of completion when that work is done.
So it is a life skill to know when something is done. In elementary Science and English classes, writing the conclusion is just as important as doing the experiment or conceiving the idea for a story.
Knowing when something is done is as significant as completing a work, staying on task. This is also a valuable life lesson as I know many, many adults who struggle completing a project before moving on to another. In fact the two are coupled, they are linked. I start a project, recognize when it is coming to a close or completion and I finish the project.
So how am I going to do this. For me language is always a key. Imaging in my mind what I am going to say and how I am going to phrase it is a required mental rehearsal. I imagine a dialogue and then I sometimes rehearse it out loud with one of my assistants.
I have three examples of instances that recently required this type of guidance in my classroom:
1.) My assistant Patti told me that she had watched one of our new students doing color mixing after having a lesson on the work.
She noted that the child was very engaged and focused on the work for about twenty minutes. After that long period of concentrated work, the child started to lose focus and began making a mess. This continued for another fifteen or so minutes. She observed that even his facial features spoke of his loss of concentration. She asked me what she should have done differently as after the work with put away with her assistance she thought maybe she should have intervened but she did not want to "disturb" his work.
I suggested that next time she observes this decline in or loss of focus that she might say, "Wow, I have been observing your work and you did such a good job for so long. Do you think your work is done now? Maybe you should clean up and put the materials away for another child to use. Would you like me to help you?" I explained that sometimes young children even feel trapped by work and are looking for permission or consent to put it away.
2.) Recently two older students created their own boats from recycled materials and then tested their boats' anchors to see if they would sink or float in a large bin of water.
It was a very successful project. However, after they tested their anchors I noted that they were starting to become very social. I walked over to them and asked, "Did both of you find the answer to your question regarding whether or not your anchors would sink or float?" They answered that they had tested two types and now knew which materials would serve better as anchors and which would not. I listened to their reply and then very calmly said, "Well, what an interesting conclusion. So this work is completed. You both did an excellent job. After you put everything away, you should think about writing about your work and maybe making some illustrations." They calmly agreed that the work was indeed finished. They also agreed that they should put everything carefully away. But, they said that snack was what they wanted to have next.
3.) Early in September, three of my students put on a continent puppet play. I wrote a post about their work. They started the work, they worked on it and they completed it via a performance. A few days after they had their puppet play, three other older students asked if they could make continent puppets and have a performance of their own. I agreed and provided them with similar materials as the ones the other students used.
They worked on their puppets for two weeks but a conclusion to the work, a performance for the class, did not seem to be forth coming. I had to ask them several times to organize the work as it became messy and even somewhat neglected at times. I spoke again with Patti and she told me that she did not feel these students were as committed to the same outcome as the other students. I had to spend a few days thinking on what I might suggest to help them finish their work without hurting their feeling or discouraging them. I remembered my post-modern art days and found several large shoe boxes in the storage closet. I also remembered my own dioramas that I had made as a child and began settling on the idea of suggesting that they use the boxes to make their own.
I was absolutely ready to continue with the idea of a performance if they had stated that that was indeed what they wanted. They didn't. They loved the idea of the shoe boxes and quickly embraced the idea of a portable theatre so as to give a performance at home.
And yet, each child used the boxes so completely different. Two of them colored the insides and drew pictures to illustrate their mobile stage. The third child, who had independently created hand puppets,
cut a small opening in the one side of her box and carefully inserted her puppets. Then, with the help of Patti, she made two holes on the opposite side. She threaded a piece of yarn between the two holes and made a handle. She closed the lid on her portable theatre, held it by its handle and grinned ear to ear with satisfaction.
I believe they were relieved to have me suggest an alternative conclusion to their work. Patti and I later discussed how forcing copy cat outcomes - conclusions on children is not responding to the individual child's needs but serving the ego of the adults. Who doesn't love to show fellow teachers pictures of beautiful work "their" students made.
This is my new focus for my own development as a guide - to help children recognize when they are done or to assist them in bringing a work to a conclusion.