Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Sensorial Materials Are Scientific Materials: A Testimony (Revised)

I was in my first year of teaching. I had graduated from my training only a few months earlier. I had also just moved from Minneapolis to Boston. It was a period of enormous change in my life. Still, I was very excited about becoming a lead teacher and having my first classroom.

Unfortunately, I wasn't greeted as warmly as I had hoped by the parents of my new school. Even though I was a published author, had spent ten years as a non-violence educator in a domestic violence program serving men who had been arrested for the crime and was starting the fourth decade of my life, the parents were openly concerned about having a "new" teacher lead the classroom. I cried a lot at night and on weekends during the first several months at the school.

As I had moved far from my training center and my trainers, I had no on-going mentoring. The head of my school was also working as a lead teacher in the second class. She was very busy juggling her administrative work and her classroom work. We really did not talk much.

But because I had just graduated, the lessons resonated within me. It was almost like I could hear the words of my trainer speaking to me in the moment as I presented work for the first time. It was an enormous comfort. Too, phrases like, "Never underestimate a child's creative intelligence" repeated themselves over and over again in my mind like Montessori mantras. This too was comforting. Finally, I had my albums which I carried with me like corporate employees carry their briefcases. They were my life line.

During my training, the Sensorial materials were presented as scientific materials designed for a scientific classroom. The color tablet boxes could be used to determine if a child was color blind. The thermic bottles could determine numbness or hyper-sensitivity in a child's hands and fingers. The sound cylinders/boxes could assist in determining issues regarding a child's hearing.

Each material has a built in abstraction and a built in scientific mode of measurement. These are two of the reasons that they are only to be used (initially) for individual presentations as each child responds uniquely to them. It is with these materials that so much knowledge about an individual child is gained.

It was work with the Sensorial materials that changed my relationship with the parent community at the school. I was re-presenting the sound cylinders/boxes to a young four year old. I had first presented the work to him a few weeks earlier. At that time he was able to matched all of the cylinders/boxes correctly. What I was seeing during this follow up presentation was quite different. He matched the loudest and the softest quickly but mismatched all the others. I smiled and invited him to put the work away. While he sat having snack, I wrote two pages of notes based on my observations.

The very next morning I spoke with his mother when she dropped him off. I mentioned that I was concerned about his hearing and that I had noticed a recent change. As she was still not warmed up to the "new" teacher, she did not seem to think it was a big deal. Since he didn't have a fever, she felt confident he didn't have an ear infection. She suggested that I might have made a mistake as I might be more exhausted then I realized, having started a new job after a big move. Her final suggestion was that I do the work with him again in a couple of days to make sure my observations were correct. I respectfully agreed that repeating the work in a few days was a good idea.

After observing the same response again from the child using the sound cylinders/boxes (not being able to match most), I approached the parent a second time. She told me that he was going to the doctor's that afternoon for a routine check-up and that she would ask the doctor to check his hearing. She also stated, "Maybe he isn't really interested in that work. He likes math. You could do more math with him instead." I remember the head of my school watching me from down the hallway as this parent spoke. I knew that my observations were correct so I thanked the mother for agreeing to have his ears check.

The boy's father brought him to school the next day. He was in a hurry and didn't say anything about the doctor's visit. However, at the end of the day, his mother stood outside my door with a bouquet of flowers. When I looked at her, a tear ran down her face.

"You saved my son's hearing. The doctor said he could have gone partially deaf or even worse. I am so sorry I doubted you," she said as more tears ran down her face.

She explained to me that she had taken him to visit her grandmother two weeks ago. She said that her grandmother used a hearing aid and that her son had seen her place the hearing aid in her right ear many times.

During their last visit, he watched her change the battery in her hearing aid and then put the aid back in her ear. Apparently, the grandmother left the old battery on the table within the child's reach.

What the doctor found when he looked in his ear was the old battery. It was wedged deep inside of the little boy's ear and took several minutes to remove. After examining the battery, the doctor noticed that it was corroded and leaking. He explained to the boy's mother that it could have caused brain damage if it had remained in the ear and had continued to leak.

After she explained all of this to me and thanked me four or five more times, I told her it was the Montessori materials that revealed the change in her son's hearing abilities and that I would not have been able to recognize this loss without them. After this conversation, the entire parent population grew much warmer towards their "new" teacher.

For me, it was an amazing confirmation that the Montessori classroom is a scientific environment. After the child's mother left, I sat alone in my classroom and wept. My heart wasn't sad. It felt instead overwhelmed by the emotions of joy. I was so glad I had taken my training and become a Montessori teacher.

(*Revision note: I received an email from a reader informing me that my previous copy of this post had a few spelling and tense errors. My apologies. I was writing on the run. I was trying to get a post in before driving my son Ian back to college. He was asking "How much longer?" and "Why can't you write that later?" I just felt such a strong urge to post the story about the hearing aid, the battery and the little boy, a pivotal moment in my first year of teaching, that I wrote quickly and checked spelling later. Again, my apologies. The above copy is hopefully 99% error free - I am sure there is one more that I didn't catch...Susan Dyer)


eLza said...

This story brought tears to my eyes, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Thanks so much for sharing, Susan...I hope you don't mind, I've linked this story to my blog.

Best of luck as the school year begins anew!


Jessica said...

Wow! That's amazing. Thanks for sharing.

billdebstanton said...

An amazing story... it also brought tears to my eyes. you should be very proud.

Koko's mama said...


Gypsy said...

That is such a great story - but I think you don't give your own teaching skills enough credit. The precision of the materials were your tools for diagnosis, but you had the courage and the skill to 'read' your student and work with the mother, following your conviction. I bet it changed your teaching forever. Amazing!

Anonymous said...

Hurray for the materials and for the careful observation skills of a great guide!!! Oh, those parents, how they doubt.... :)

Evenspor said...

Thank you for this post. It is so relevant to my recent experiences that it is almost like you wrote it for me.

Have you had many experiences with ADHD children in the Montessori classroom?

Paul and Ines said...

What a positve end to an encouraging story. At times, it is hard to approach a parent about behaviors & was told not to diagnose..but obsevation combined with material manipulation do give an outcome. Whether it is mastery or deficiency..but the courage lies with you. You could've shrug it off. You could of let a couple weeks pass & regive the lesson. Since it was hard to probably discuss with your very busy director (i've been there) you are the courageous one. Kudos to you & lesson learned to speak up about observations. Even if it is gently.

Sarah@HomeschoolinRealLife said...

I love this story and have repeated it (verbally) several times to various family members who are a bit skeptical on Montessori Methods. Just an extra reason for the attention to the child's sensory perceptions.

sanecity said...

This is a wonderful story indeed. Inspiring. Thank you for sharing. I am working towards getting primary training in Montessori at MTCM. Would it be possible to communicate with you via email?

Susan Y. Dyer said...

I invite all my readers to communicate with me via email - my address is

Happy Holidays

Susan Dyer
The Moveable Alphabet

Prasad said...

This is an amazing story. Thanks for sharing.