Friday, July 11, 2008

Catching Up On Summer Reading Updated

I have finally pulled them down from the shelves - my observation notebooks from my first few years of teaching. I read them every summer. Reading them I rediscover ideas, re-think ways of presenting a particular material and remember lessons/ exercises so new to me then. I make a list of the lessons that somehow didn't get done last year and commit myself to doing them this upcoming one. Also, within each book are examples of student's early work. As I look at them again, my first thoughts about the work flood back to me. Too, I find notes from teachers that I worked with during those years and, now, haven't seen in years. My observation notebooks remind me of the significance of note taking - whether by myself or by my assistants, or both. Each notebook is a historical document and a scientific journal. They draw me back to the words of both my trainers and of Maria Montessori. They revive me and re-invigorate me. They will sit next to my desk for the remainder of the summer. I have already spent the early part of this day reviewing the sketches I made in each.

Obervations are known as the cornerstone of the Montessori method. My trainer referred to these carefully taken notes as the "heart beat" of the Montessori work. She said that we must strive to master the art of observation as it is the foundation of our work. Dr. Montessori relied on scientific observations as a tool. Through observations Montessori discovered the sensitive periods, the absorbent mind and identified human tendencies.

Too, it must be noted that observing is different than seeing. Maria Montessori said, "The task of observation must be based on an interest in humanity...a total commitment to each individual child." It is via observations that we are able to determine what, when and who to give a presentation. The more we understand the art of observation, the more we will regard it as worthwhile. It won't be tiresome, it will be interesting. Remembering that most young children can not verbalize their needs; objective, scientific observations speak for them.

Here are some guidelines for observing in the classroom as instructed to me during my training:

1.We need to see that our own emotions do not get in the way. Knowledge will help us become more objective.

2. Do not let the child know that you are watching them in particular. We need to cultivate the character of a scientist. Do not disturb children in any way. Our purpose is to see children acting independently.

3. We need to stay still when observing the children. Do not discuss your observations with another adult in the classroom while children are present. While observing the children or a particular child remain alert and aware of what is going on in the entire environment. We need to be in the present and to silence the mind of past experiences. It is important to recognize each situation is different.

4. We must develop a scientific passion for an interest in children and their development. We must also see each child as a unique individual. Through true interest in the child our perception changes. We see a child/children in a new light.

5. Patience. Maria Montessori said, "All the great observers are fundamentally and extremely patient."

6. Exactness. We must use percise language in our observation notes. Avoid all labels that could be damaging to the child. Also, make charts showing the curves of each child's work.

7. Observations need to be continuous. We don't want to make assertations based on only a few observations. Observing is a skill that takes time to learn. "In order to be able to truly help, we have to know, to recognize," stated Maria Montessori in the Absorbent Mind.

I have two different types of observations made in the classroom by my assistants and myself. One is basically a check list of presentations I give and the materials a child uses, and whether s/he repeats the work or not. The other (a notebook format) records much more data - like bits of insightful conversation, explanations of a work by one child to another, willingness or not to independently select work, emotional highs and lows and data given by the parent regarding changes in the home life, ex. mother away for two weeks on a work trip. Together these two make a whole picture. The first is a much needed roster of work that enables me to check off presentations and work done by children for their conference reports. The second tells me about the child and his/her relationship to the work and to the environment. It is here too that I find the details and the quotes to use in conference reports.

I just re-read last night a note I wrote about a child's first comment after I presented punch work for the continents (a traced outline of say Africa is poked with a small tool - sometimes a fancy tack - all around it until it comes free and is used in constructing a map of the world). The child had such a serious face when they asked, after I made several punch holes around the particular continent, "Are those the tiny footprints of the people walking around the continent?" I paused for a long moment while making eye contact with the child and explained that people are of a certain, general height and that the holes would be too small for footprints but instead are simply going to allow me to tear away the shape of the continent. I also stated that Africa was an enormous place and that the puzzle shape was much, much smaller than that place. I took her question completely serious - it wasn't cute or silly - it was an honest inquiry by a young mind. Also, by responding with a serious answer, the child remained focused on the work and committed to the details of the work. They did not get up from the table until they needed my assistance to tear away the excess paper. They stayed with the work until it was finished which was at least 30 minutes.

My observation notes simply contained the child's name and the quote, also the material presented. The rest flooded back to me when I read the quote. This is the power of observation-note taking.

In late August, I will get out this past year's notes and write the preliminary path for this year's work.