Friday, January 29, 2010

Updated: Assisting Primary Children in Recognizing When a Work is Finished

(After much review, I have decide to make several changes to this piece. I, like all teachers, need to be flexible in my thoughts and ideas and have a willingness to re-evaluate them. I present this post again with some things deleted and others added.)

Like many others, 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. The union of two classic phrases of the Montessori Method has become for me what Buddhists refer to as a koan: a puzzling, often paradoxical statement or story that serves to heighten awareness. The two phrases are: “Follow the lead of the child” and “Never abandon a child.”

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. Therefore, I believe that we must remain fluid in our thoughts and our relationships with each child, while simultaneously preserving the method. This may result in others seeing a Montessori teacher as uncertain, unprepared, always in a state of transition, unable to commit to lesson plans, and the list goes on. Or, they may see them as deeply committed individuals who: daily prepare an environment, assess each child's individual academic needs, prepare lessons to meet those needs, provide the materials / opportunities for the child to master those lessons.

However, in regards to some children, we need to not only guide them and assist them in mastering work; we need to help them recognize when they are done, that a work is finished. This notion seems in opposition to so much about Montessori.

Two of the three freedoms offered all children in a Montessori classroom are the freedom to choose work and the freedom to repeat work. We love it when we observe a child who has independently chosen to wash a table and does so for most of a morning. We are “following the lead of the child” in acknowledging that he has chosen his work and is repeating it, again and again.

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 is where the phrase, “Never abandon a child” comes into play.

Is it not abandoning a child if we observe that they seem unable to conclude a work and yet we do not assist them in doing so? And too, if the work slowly declines and turns into a mess which results in the child having a melt down, how can we hold them completely accountable if we observed that they seemed stuck.

Language serves as a key in my ability to assist children in recognizing that a work is finished. I imagine a dialogue between myself and a student. Time permitting; I rehearse it out loud with one of my assistants before talking with the child. I have two examples of instances that required this type of guidance:

1.) My assistant told me that she had watched a new student do color mixing after having a recent 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 was 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, "I have been observing your work. You have been working for a long time. Do you think your work is done now? Would you like to clean up and put the materials away for another child to use?. Do you remember how I showed you to put the work away? If not, I can show you again now." I explained that sometimes young children feel trapped by work and are looking for permission or consent to put it away.

2.) 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 laughing a lot and that they had begun splashing each other with the water. 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 interesting findings. So, do you think this work is completed? Yes. After you both put everything away, the two you should consider writing about your work and maybe making some illustrations. Engineers always document their work." After carefully cleaning and putting away their work, they had snack together. When they finished, they spent the remainder of the work period writing about the work and included several illustrations.

What I also find rewarding about these brief dialogues between myself and my students, is that I often hear them repeated, later, between themselves and other students. They add the vocabulary I use into their file of self-regulatory terms. These terms generally arise from self-speech. They aid children in self-control, in a sense of the passing of time, in knowing how long to commit to one project when working on many. They are fundamental to a child’s success in reading and mathematics. The Montessori directress is a living material. All speech spoken by the adults in the room is internalized by the children. The words we use are re-articulated by our students. I can not count the number of times I have heard an older children use language I spoke during a lesson verbatim to a younger student that they were mentoring.

Lastly, to be able to complete work within a given time period a child must have an awareness of the passing of time. Have you ever noticed that some children seem totally surprised every day when the bell rings signaling the end of the work period? They shrug, let out a moan and act like somehow time slipped by them. Their materials are still out and they plead to have a little more time to finish their work and/or clean-up. Yet the question that needs to be asked is how can these children finish work if they do not have an inner time keeper? And too, how can we assist those that don’t in developing one and provide tools, such as sand timers, to aide them until they have. Perhaps that should be added to conference reports. Just under “Student has spatial awareness of the room” could be listed, “Student has a keen sense of the passing of time.”

My Montessori koan, “Follow the lead of the child. Never abandon a child” remains with me. I find that there is a thin line between following the child and abandoning child. It is this small line that pokes and prods the philosopher in me. Add that to the list of what constitutes a Montessori directress; philosopher.


Evenspor said...

Another great post that gives me new thoughts regarding interactng with my own child. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

A very thoughtful and thought provoking post. It can be applied to our personal and professional lives as adults as well. Thank you for sharing your insight.

Susanne said...

Thank you for the post. It makes me reflect on the thin line between play and work and how to distinguish them when I am observing.

Anonymous said...

I read this entry, then applied it to my classroom, and was instantly amazed at how many children this applied to!

I also wanted to comment and say I have read your blog forward and backward completely - I'm a huge fan! Reading all of your amazing insights here has lead me to start my own Montessori blog documenting my own observations throughout my training and in my classroom. Thank you very much for the wonderful things you write about! You have a great gift.

The Special K's(0: said...

I really enjoyed this post. Thank you so much for sharing a beautiful insight into a lovely philosophy(0:

Susan Y. Dyer said...

Thanks for the great feedback everyone.

Susan Dyer
The Moveable Alphabet

Debi Gull said...

I had my own color mixing experience yesterday...wish I had read your post before I went to work. But thats ok today is a new day. Oh by the way I found your blog through the 50 online montessori blogs page you mentioned. Thanks for sharilng.