Saturday, August 29, 2009

How to Teach A Child To Paint Continued: How to Clean a Paintbrush

Note: I give the lesson on "How to Clean a Paintbrush" after I give the one on "Parts of a Paintbrush."

The above photo is of the tray I put together for cleaning a paintbrush. The two glass containers are for the following 1.) soapy water to initially loosen paint from the brush 2.) clear water to rinse the brush. The dish with three sections is used for the following: one section holds cut pieces of paper towel, the second has small rectangles of yellow felt for drying and shaping the head of the paintbrush and the third is for thin pieces of sponge also used to dry the hairs of the brush.

The smaller, second tray to the right of the Cleaning a Paintbrush tray is a refill tray for the first tray. This second tray is only out for the photo and is not taken to the table unless the child needs to re-supply the Cleaning a Paintbrush Tray. The white, square ceramic plate is to place soiled pieces of paper towel and felt on. The child carries this tray to the garbage and empties it at the end of the work.

The Cleaning a Paintbrush tray is brought to the table by the child after they have cleaned the paint tray and all other items on the tray leaving only the brushes to be cared for. They also bring an oil cloth or a place mat to the table. They take each item from the tray and place it on the oil cloth. They then return the empty, wooden tray to the shelf so as to serve as a place holder

The child, although finished painting, does not take off their art aprons until they have finished this work. Next, they remove the brush(es) from their various paint pots or resting trays and wipe any remaining paint off with a small piece of paper towel found on the Paintbrush Cleaning Tray.

They continue by taking the partially cleaned brush and placing it on the ceramic rest, also found on the tray. The child then fills the small pitcher with water. They put a few drops of dish soap (I keep a small bottle of dish soap in the Practical Life area for floor washing.) into one of the glass containers and pour the water from the pitcher into it. A funnel is kept on the tray to assist in pouring the water into the container.

Using the partially cleaned brush, they stir the soapy water to wash away more paint. They then lift the brush from the water and carefully check the hairs for paint. If needed they return the brush to the soapy water until the hairs are clean.

Now they refill the pitcher with clean water and pour the water into the second glass container in which they place the paintbrush rinsing it clean. The child removes the wet paintbrush and rolls it across the piece of sponge on the tray so as to partially dry the brush and to do some preliminary shaping of the brush hairs.

Now they "dress" the brush by wiping it between the folded drying-cloth (small, piece of rectangular felt) also found on the tray. The child carefully shapes the hairs of the brush back to a point or a flat edge.

They return the brush to the container holding a variety of paintbrushes in the art area positioning the brush so that the hairs are pointing up. Having the brush hairs down in a jar or any other container will damage the head.

The final steps include putting the dirty drying-cloth in the laundry basket, putting the used paper towel pieces in the garbage, emptying the containers of water and drying the containers, refilling the paper towel pieces and drying-cloths on the tray if needed. The child then retrieves the larger, wooden tray from the shelf and places each of the items carefully on it. The child returns the wooden tray to the shelf. Lastly, the child removes their art apron.

I keep a laminated sheet with each step listed in the art area along with the one titled, "Parts of a Paintbrush" and another titled, "How To Clean an Art Tray."

Friday, August 28, 2009

How to Teach A Child To Paint Continued: How to Return a Tray To The Shelf

(Note: A better name for the post would be "Tray Management...")

Lessons on cleaning the art materials need to be broken down into smaller, more specific steps for each individual tray and those specific tools associated to that tray's use. Cleaning a paintbrush is one act in regards to caring for an entire tray such as a watercolor tray. Other requirements of caring for a watercolor tray include: cleaning the paint tray, rinsing and squeezing out the small sponge, rinsing and drying the small pitcher used for water, washing and drying the tray itself, setting each of the objects back on the tray as when the tray was on the shelf before being engaged.

However, returning a tray to the shelf as it was before use does not always happen. It is my experience that trays that have several items on them are frequently returned to the shelf disorganized. It may not always be that the child has not tried to put it back correctly, but that half way through they simply wanted to escape the task as they really couldn't remember where everything went. So they did what they thought was most important - returning it to its correct place on the shelf. This is often what is done by both the youngest and the oldest students in the class.

Photo Below: Imagine your a four year old who has just painted a personal masterpiece. You are engaging the material with passion and then the bell rings announcing that it is time to clean up as the day is coming to an end. Do you paint those final strokes and then place your name tag on your work in an attempt to convey your desire to clean-up tomorrow, please? Or do you hang your masterpiece up to dry, gather all that you see and pile it on a tray, place the tray on the shelf and hope that while you wash your hands no one will notice?

Photo Below: Or maybe, if you were given earlier notice, you spend the time carefully cleaning the tray. You even take the time to wipe away the excess paint from the rim of the paint pots with a cotton ball exactly like the lesson you were recently given.


In my training, there was a wonderful lesson presented on helping a child remember the order of objects placed on a tray. Many trays have several items on them and it can be challenging for a young child to recall were it is all supposed to be placed.

The lesson is for a child who has repeated a work many times but has been observed returning the tray to the shelf somewhat messy. You invite the child to get the work out with you. But, you intervene before he starts to remove the items from the tray and place them on his/her table. You say to the child, "Today, we are going to do something different with this tray. Are you ready?"

You ask the child to carefully study the tray and the placement of the items on it. Then you ask the child, "Would you carefully remove each of the items and place them on the table to the left of the tray." Once this is done you continue, "Now, I have a wonderful challenge for you. I want you to put all of the items back on the tray. But you need to put them back just as they were before you took them off." The child will most likely look at you and say, "Oh, that is easy."

They might be able to do it or not. If they have difficulty you may intervene and assist. Once they are able to place all of the items back on the tray successfully you invite them for a new challenge. "You did that very well. It looks like you know where everything goes. I would like you to try doing it again, only this time with a blindfold on. Ask the child to go and get a blindfold from the Sensorial area or you might bring one with you and not reveal you have it until this moment. (Always remember to place a folded tissue between the blindfold and a child's eyes so that you prevent the spread of infection).

When the child returns with the blindfold ask them to take everything back off the tray and place the items to the left again. Look at them for a moment, smile and say, "Now put on your blindfold. Don't forget the tissue. Are you ready? Okay, start putting the items back on the tray." (Hint: If there are any fragile pieces, such as a glass pitcher, make sure that you are working with the child at a large enough table as to limit the possibility of the pieces falling and breaking while the child tries to reach for them blindfolded. Or suggest as they take the items off the tray to place fragile pieces closest to the tray and farthest from the edge of the table.)

This is a wonderful activity to watch. Trust me when I say that you will not be the only person watching. When the child says he/she is finished, have them take off the blindfold and see how they have done. Some children set everything back perfect. Other children place things on top of one another and ask to try again.

Before you move on to another child's needs, invite the child to do this work without you using other trays that they are familiar with. It is really lovely to see a child take a tray from the shelf, get a blindfold and simply practice placing the items on the tray.


Years ago, when I watched on the big screen the movie "Girl With A Pearl Earring" about the painter Vermeer and his personal housekeeper (played by Scarlet Johansson), I thought about the above work. In an amazing scene, she trains her hand how to lift, dust and return each item exactly to their original spot in the artist's studio. This purposeful and focused movement was amazing to watch. There is a stillness that envelops an individual engaged in such careful and controlled movement. It is the same for the observer. I remember becoming ever so still in my velour covered movie seat as I watched her hands move. I have had that same feeling watching students completely captivated by their work.

Yes, I know, Montessorians see the method or the lack of the method everywhere...

How to Teach A Child To Paint Continued: Parts of a Paintbrush

Labeling the parts of a paintbrush seems as natural to the Montessori classroom as labeling the environment. Hearing a child tell another child not to soak their brush in water to long as it will cause the ferrule to break sounds almost out of the Victorian age rather than the age of technology. "Ferrule" is a wonderful word and as I type this I am thinking it would be great to use in a good game of Scrabble. Now, all I need to do is remember the word the next time I play. Hmmm...

I introduce the parts of a paintbrush as a preliminary lesson to "How to Clean a Paintbrush." It makes sense that a child should be able to verbally identify what in fact they are attempting to clean.

I print out a sheet with the three parts of a paintbrush listed along with their descriptions. I include an illustration of a paintbrush with its parts labeled ( I use the one at the top of this post). I laminate this sheet and place it in the art area for students to refer to after the initial lesson is given.

The three parts of a paintbrush are:

1. Head - The head is what the hairs on a brush are called. Hairs are made from natural or man-made fibers or both. Some natural hairs used in making brushes include ox, pony, goat or hog bristle.

2. Ferrule - The metal tube connecting the brush to the handle. The ferrule shapes the head of the brush and determines its size. Swelling of the brush handle (due to soaking in water) or a buildup of paint can break the ferrule.

3. Handle - The long, stick like form connected to the ferrule that is made from either wood or man-made products.

An extension of this lesson is to place a variety of paintbrushes on a small tray and ask students to carefully examine the ferrule on each and to describe or sketch the differences in its size and shape. And too, to note how these variances in the ferrule's shape determine the thickness and shape of the head. Recognizing these details will assist the student later when determining which type of brush they want to use to paint or illustrate with.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Introduction to Pattern Making for the Third Year Student

If you have never been in a Primary classroom for a three year span than it is difficult to completely imagine or view how practical life skills truly become the cultivated skills of the students in no less a way than a potter or woodworker, an architect or an engineer rely on their foundation skills to forge their own aesthetic. I once heard a child say after I gave an art lesson, "Oh, painting a single stroke like that is like carrot work. When you do carrot work you make one long peel with the peeler and then another. When you make a stroke like that you make one long sweep with the paintbrush."

This third year child was a living file cabinet of muscular memory regarding the Montessori materials.

What I find most inspiring and affirming is looking out at a classroom of children engaged in work at various stages of the three-four year cycle. It is a visual echo of the placement of work on the shelves. We can see the work laid out in such a way as to see the evolution of lessons. When a student filled classroom is actively engaged in a variety of work, that single moment encapsulates the entire three year cycle. They are a collective representation of the entire Montessori method for the primary casa.

Last year, I had several six year olds in my classroom. Their commitment to work and their ability to work independently was impressive. During the final few days of our school year, two of these students (one in her fourth year and the other her third) began work which relied on their muscular and mental memory of many prior lessons given to each of them using a wide range of the Montessori materials.

One of these lessons was using tracing paper to record an image or shape. My four year olds love this work. Once they began tracing images found on the cover of and inside books, they do it again and again. It is an extension of tracing the outline of a metal inset or its frame. I keep a large stack of tracing paper out on the shelf available for children to use as needed. It is often needed.

This tracing over and over again of book covers and various drawings creates a sort of muscular memory sketchbook. I have seen children do this work and then leap to drawing a frog or a bird freehand (without tracing an image) and the work is much more mature in its construction than work done by children the same age who did not do any tracing. I have also seen older children trace an entire page of a poetry book including the poem and then carefully illustrate the piece with colored pencils. Finally, I have observed third year students trace a few images onto a piece of paper and then embellish these with their own art work. This work takes days to complete. The quiet focus of a child doing such work draws to one's mind images of early scribes.

Another of the significant lessons in regards to the work of the above mentioned six year olds was sewing. Once a child has been shown how to sew they acquire a love for the needle and its thread.

An older three year old can sew a button. I had a five year old bring a pair of torn pants to school one day and mend them during the three hour work period. She put them back in her backpack at the end of the day and returned the next day wearing them.

Sewing projects such as pillow making are favorite holiday gifts from the children to their parents.

There must be a correlation between sewing a line and walking a line in a child's mind. The practice of staying steady, not leaving the path, small steps and small stitches are poetic acts in the canon of movement.

After much work tracing the outlines of images, students are then given a lesson on how to trace the individual pieces of a puzzle onto a corresponding color of construction paper. They then cut these pieces out and reassemble them onto a background sheet of paper.

Often, children add other elements to the construction such as a nest or a tree limb.

In a wonderful fusion of writing (the creation of lines with specific forms), practical life (sewing), math (the calculation of size and the spatial placement of objects within a bordered space) and art, third and fourth year students are given a lesson on using tracing paper to create sewing patterns. When I present this work, I talk about all of the other work that came before it. Then I lean forward and tell those students the most amazing thing,

"There are large books in fabric stores that have many, many patterns for making clothes, dolls, purses, Halloween costumes and so much more," I say as if revealing a sacred secret of the cosmic universe.

It is this work that the two students began this past Spring. When I told Zoe and Meaghan about the pattern books, Zoe's mouth dropped open. "Miss Dyer, is that true?" she asked with wide-eyed curiosity.

"It is absolutely true. You should ask your Mom or Dad to take you to a fabric store one day so that you may see for yourself," I answered. "The patterns are drawn on paper like tracing paper only it is slightly different. This paper is called tissue paper. It is much thinner and almost always a tan color," I explained.

Then I asked, "Would you and Meaghan like to learn how to make your own patterns and use them to design a pillow?"

"Yes," the duo replied.

First, I asked them to think about a subject that they were interested in. Next, I instructed them to go and find objects in the classroom that represented that interest and bring them back to their work tables.

Meaghan was interested in the beach so she brought several sea shells to her table. Zoe was interested in the solar system so she selected a few books on the various planets and returned with those.

Soon they were using sewing pins to position their traced and cut out patterns on small pieces of colored felt. After cutting these shapes out, they spent several minutes carefully deciding where they wanted each piece to be placed on the tops of their later completed pillows.

Above: Zoe is tracing and cutting solar system shapes for her pillow, including a rocket ship. Below: Meaghan works on her ocean scene.

Below: This was what they had completed on the first day after working most of the morning.

Once they had all of the pieces placed and pinned, they started sewing:

Every now and again, I stopped and watched them work. I imagined the pair of pants that Zoe might make for herself over the summer or the Halloween costume Meaghan might design and sew one day. I listened to their conversations, now much briefer than when they were younger. On a few occasions I heard one of them say to the other, "Let's not talk so much. Let's concentrate on our sewing." This beautiful work was the concluding work for these two girls in the Primary environment.

(Note: Due to the early closing of my school because of possible Swine Flu, Zoe and Meaghan finished their pillows at home. I am confident that they are being used daily - put no photos - yet)

A Return To Posting

I can hardly believe I am typing a post. Each time I attempted to return to my blog and continue writing, I became overwhelmed with emotion. I would look at the pictures of my former students and simply weep. I have been grieving. My heart has been aching.

Over the summer, I received packages from fellow Montessorians that remained on my desk unopened until today. The paintings Kathy sent me, watercolors she did herself, are so stunningly beautiful that I can only encourage you to check them out yourself at her blog:

She was enormously generous and I can only apologize for not acknowledging her gift earlier. Her work would look wonderful in the entryway of any Montessori school, classroom or home. Kathy is extremely talented.

Although I have been on-leave from my Montessori blog, I have been piecing together the upcoming year. I have been accepted as a substitute teacher for both Primary and Elementary classrooms in two large (toddler - to 6th grade) schools in the Boston area. They have promised to keep me busy for most of the school year. I have also been accepted into an adult yoga teacher training (200 hrs.) which starts the first week of September and runs for ten weeks - classes are on Friday evenings and all day Saturday and Sunday. I have taught yoga to children for more than a decade and just concluded an eight week summer program. I have decided to take the adult training as a means of making a deeper commitment to my yoga practice.

For several years, I have wanted to learn French. I just had my sixth lesson from a wonderful young woman who is a graduate student studying film. She is a native speaker and has added some delightful phrases ("Susan, this is how my grandmother would say it...") to our weekly lessons.

Finally, the Montessori Foundation has asked that I consider writing for both their Tomorrow's Child and Montessori Leadership Magazines. I was recently surprised by the invitation when I opened an email titled "Blog and Pictures." The foundation's South Africa editor said she came across my blog while doing research for an art curriculum. I am incredibly flattered and look forward to working with them.

Now that I have set aside the tissues, I have many, many posts to write. Thank you for hanging in there. I see the upcoming school year as one filled with new opportunities. I am sure I will keep all of you posted.