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.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Creative Writing in the Primary Classroom


I have a particular fondness for the creative writing lessons that I learned during my AMI training. A favorite uses cut out magazine images. During my initial presentation to a 4 - 4 ½ year old child (after he has done much work with the chalk board, metal insets, sound boxes, etc.,) I use pictures of simple, phonetically spelled words. I glue a selected, single picture onto a small piece of writing paper. After sounding out the word together, the child writes it below the image.

When the child has done this work for a period of time and has been given lessons on several of the grammar materials including the phonetic object box, the phonogram box, the article and the verb, I introduce them to pictures that have similarly spelled subjects, like cat or dog, in the midst of an action. Examples: a picture of a dog barking or a cat jumping. As the grammar lessons continue, the images grow in complexity. This is the path outlined in my AMI Language Album.

Some children, however, simply start writing sentences during their first initial lesson. This was the case with an older four year old in my class that had done a lot of writing with the Moveable Alphabet. During my first presentation with her using cut out pictures, she spontaneously began writing short sentences. The first one eloquently read, "A leaf falls down." When I presented a second image to her, she looked at me and said, "No, not yet. I have more to write." This young four year old was waiting for this moment and it was hers to hold on to for as long as she wanted.

For older children, I use pictures from magazines such as the Smithsonian. The images that I choose go through my mental sorting and questioning: What story does the picture tell? Where is it? What kind of animal is that? Also, I select ones with wonderful color and details; like something else happening in the background, other than the main image. These I display on a table in the language area for viewing and selecting.

When a student selects a picture, I ask them to answer the same questions about it that I asked myself when I cut it out. Then, if the child comes up to me later and shows me a paper with only one line of writing on it (ex. Boy with a bike), I ask them, “Where do you think he is riding his bike to? What color are the boy’s eyes? Do you think the boy has any brothers or sisters? How old is the boy? What is the boy’s name?"

Next, I say to the child "If your photograph fell off of your paper I wouldn't know these things. The author has to tell me these things in their writing so that I can see the picture in my mind without the photo." I then send them back to their desk to continue writing their story. Eventually, students elect not to use a cut out picture choosing instead to illustrate their stories with their own drawings.

"Focus on the details," is something I often say when teaching creative writing to my older students. Such a simple statement, consistently said, invites children to expand their vocabulary and their awareness of the world around them. In my classroom, stories written by older students have multiple characters and the narrative tells a good, often funny, story. These students are no longer content with a single page of writing; they now write stories that require page numbers. One such student wrote a small chapbook that included three chapters.

I hear this attention to details even in the way these older students describe a scene or relay information. I will never forget the description a third year student gave me after she felt another student’s forehead to see if it felt warm; they had complained of not feeling well. She said, “She’s warm like when your hot cocoa finally cools down." This was the young voice of a creative writer.

Lastly, creative writers love an audience. I generally ask at each gathering time if anyone has a story to read. Young children will read a single word as if they are reading a well crafted haiku. Older children may read an entire page or more. When the student is done reading, the listening students are either asked questions about the story by the writer or ask the writer questions themselves. This also promotes a more complete written story as peers can be harsh critics.

I remember a child asked a fellow student who had just read a story that he had written earlier that morning, "But where is he?" "You forgot to write that!" The writer said, "Oh, I forgot." The next day he wrote half a page about where he thought the person in the photo was.

I study these documents carefully looking for clues as to which lessons are needed to be presented, or re-presented, to individual authors. My most common finding is the spelling wnz for once. I generally don't point out the misspelled word to the child. Instead, I give them a follow-up lesson with the puzzle (sight) words.

Creative writing is the inner voice of a child made known to the world. It solves that long standing quandary so often articulated, “I don’t have anything to write about.” When a child moves from one small image of a leaf falling to a forest full of children identifying the names of trees, they will never be without something to write about. Yet, if you do hear that old adage spoken, remind them of the stories they were telling at the coat racks when they arrived that morning. If they answer, “Those aren’t really stories,” tell them, “Great writers make the small details of life interesting.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Blindfold

Here are two photos that stood out to me today as I was going through my photo album.

In the first photo, the young girl is doing the Binomial Cube blindfolded.



When she finished this work, she did the Trinomial Cube blindfolded. It was mesmerizing to watch. It drew silence from the entire room.

In the second photo, the same child is do the Money (coins) Mystery Bag work blindfolded.



These two images should remind all of us to present the blindfold more in our classrooms and to see the possibility of its use with so many materials.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

School Desks



I encourage each of you to go and visit Biehus for a wonderful, short post which quotes Maria Montessori's position on the school desk. Biehus stirs great thoughts, with few words, in this insightful post.

“hope is the only bee that makes honey without flowers” – r.g. ingersoll

Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Dream"

Enjoy this repeat post:



My assistant and I have been talking about Martin Luther King Jr. during circle time. Last week we read a few books, put out some hand outs to illustrate, made peace necklaces and explained Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream for peace. I overheard several children casually discussing these facts as they worked on the various handouts. As these discussions continued over several days, I began to get a gut feeling that maybe the children were not correctly comprehending the history of this great man's life and his celebrated vision for the rights of all people. They were talking a lot more about his "dream."

Then I remembered a class discussion I had initiated the day we returned to school after the holiday vacation. I asked the children how their days began. "Is it a kiss and a nudge from a parent that awakens you?" I inquired. Many children agreed that this was indeed how their day began. But one child said, "Well, first I have a dream while I am sleeping. When my dream ends, I wake up."

After reflecting for a bit on this child's comment, I began planning on how to bring my concerns up during circle time. When we had finished singing a couple of songs, I started to talk about Martin Luther King Jr. and his dream for peace. I next asked the children, "What was Martin Luther King Jr. doing when he had this dream?" A flurry of hands went up. I selected an eager child to answer. "He was sleeping," she enthusiastically blurted out. Several other children chimed in with the same answer. "He was dreaming, Ms. Dyer. You dream when you are asleep," another child clearly stated.

Well, I had my answer. I then proceeded to ask if any of the children knew what they wanted to be when they grew up. "I want to be the best artist in the world," was one response. I used this hope to be something in the future as a springboard for discussing a vision, a goal, an aspiration, a dream. After the day ended, I felt confident that my four, five and 6 year olds had moved towards understanding the difficult concept "to dream."

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fetching and Pairing in the Primary Environment: Exercises in Decision Making


Every time I have the opportunity to observe in a Primary classroom, generally via the role as consultant, I notice several children who appear to be wandering aimlessly. These children are classic examples of the second year student who is usually 4+ years old. As they stroll through the classroom, they glide their hands along the edges of shelves occasionally stopping to briefly manipulate a decorative object and then continue on with a casual demeanor.

Every now and again they land at another student's work rug and after a brief conversation are asked either by the student doing the work or the classroom assistant to find their own work. They answer, “I don't know what work to choose.” If snack isn't open, they return to wandering throughout the classroom re-touching all that they touched earlier. This visually reminds me of a t-shirt I recently saw that read, “All who wander are not lost.” It brings a positive insight to the small tribes of nomadic four year olds that populate almost every Primary environment.


Accepting that movement is age-appropriate for young children and is one of the three freedoms given to children in a Montessori classroom, work that includes movement is ideal for them. I am referring to fetching and pairing work, a favorite activity of the second year student.

Fetching and pairing is initially presented as a two person work: the lead teacher and a student. Later, two students do the work independent of adult participation. The work is generally done using sensorial materials but language, math and botanical materials may also be used. Actually, any material that can be separated into two matching parts is suitable for fetching and pairing. One of my favorites is the sandpaper letters and the moveable alphabet. I find this work serves as a bridge between the materials and reaffirms to the child that, while the materials are physically different, they are the same in regards to the letters they represent.

When initially presenting the work, invite a child to bring color box II to a working rug which you have laid out in anticipation of the lesson. Also, make sure that you bring a tray and a pointer. I generally use a fancy chopstick.



Ask the child to place one tablet of each color on the rug. Then ask the child to take the remaining tablets in their box to an empty table across the room from the rug. Have the child place the tablets in the box on the table top and bring the empty container back to the work rug. Next, hand the child a small tray. Tell them that you are going to point to one of the color tablets on the rug, name it and ask that they fetch its pair from the table across the room.

The child carries the empty tray across the room and stands in front of the table. Imagine for a moment the mental activity of the child looking at all of the options on the table top and making a judgement regarding which one correctly pairs with the other. When he decides on his choice, he places it on the tray and returns it to the work rug. You check to make sure that the two match. If they do not match you tell the child, “I am sorry, but these do not match. Please take this one back to the table and bring the one that does.”

The child then returns to the table and replaces the incorrect color tablet with the correct one. When he returns with his new choice, the correct choice, his decision making abilities are again validated. The activity continues until all of the tablets are paired. Then the roles are switched. The child uses the pointer and the teacher fetches and pairs.

I was fortunate to attend the 24th International Montessori Congress in Paris several years ago. I recently re-read my notes on the various lectures. Those on Lynne Lawrence's talk (current Director of AMI) regarding the sensorial materials highlight the significance of the work I outlined in the above paragraphs. She states, “in the simple act of pairing...the child questions whether two sensory impressions are the same or different, makes a decision, acts upon this decision and bears the consequences of this judgement. At the same time the child may revise this decision when faced, later, with a final pair that do not match.” She concludes, “The activity...strengthen(s) their ability to make choices and act upon their own judgements and decisions.”

This is of course the maturation of a child. They are organizing their world, and this new found sense of external order is internalized within the child. As their confidence in their decision making grows so too does their ability to work independently. How can a child choose work if they lack confidence in their ability to decide which work to select? Therefore, instructing a wandering 4 year old who has not had much experience in making decisions and bearing the consequences of those decisions to find their own work will ultimately result in the utterance of the phrase I quoted earlier, “I don't know which work to choose.” This, then, is a very honest statement.

Beyond the social enjoyment of two students working together, multiple other factors come into play. Commitment is one of those. Two children have commited to do a work together. That means that one student can't simply jump up when they see the snack chair open and say that they are hungry and longer want to do the work. They have made a commitment to do the work with another child and may not abandon that commitment. This develops trust amongst the children.

Additionally, the children agree to do the work, not to play. If a child is attempting to find the correct match to say a purple color tablet and returns with that matching tablet only to be told by the child sitting at the rug that they brought the wrong one due to the fact that they have changed their mind regarding which color tablet that needs to be paired, a dispute may occur. The selected object to be paired can not be changed once the child with the tray has left the rug seeking its match. It is pychologically frustrating to make a correct decision and to have that decision be received as incorrect. Again, working together should build trust. In this case, trust that the work will be done correctly and honestly.

The number of materials that can be used for fetching and pairing seems to grow every time I try to create a list. This is actually a plus as it allows opportunity for the child to engage with so many different materials. One of the hardest materials to pair in this way is the sound boxes. Yet, I have seen it done successfully several times. How often have you wished that the geometry cabinet was used more often? And what about the frequently neglected botany cabinet? Both of these can be used in fetching and pairing activities. The pairing can be done with the insets and the frames or the insets and their matching cards.

The number rods can be paired with their corresponding wooden cards. An important step is to scatter the objects that are to be match. This means that the numbers rods would be laid out randomly on the rug rather than in an order that may allow the child to simply predict the next number. Scattering the rods requires the child to count each of the blue and red spaces to find the correct quantity and length to match its card.

In the language area, another pairing work that I recommend is with objects from the sound box and the sandpaper letters. This might require some initial assistance from an adult to assure that there are objects in the box that match several different letters. The sandpaper letters are scattered on a work rug and the objects are positioned on top of a table across the room. The child sitting at the rug points to a letter and says its phonetic sound and asks the child with the tray to fetch an object from the table that matches the sound. This work advances both children's phonetic awareness. A child may approach you and ask to be reminded what sound an object makes and that is fine. Simply answer them and let them continue with the game.

Finally, this work serves as a preliminary exercise to command work such as asking a child to bring you a horse from the farm or, when working with the golden bead material, bring you a quantity such as 3,654. It develops in the child an ability to hold information in their mind and to maintain that information as they move through a socially charged environment, the classroom.

I remember a wonderful moment when a child walking across the room to find the pair to a botany card spontaneously walked the line. Controlled movement is a natural outcome of this work, as is a new sense of wonder for many of the materials simply by re-engaging them. And not to be understated, this work allows the child to practice carrying objects on a tray from one area of the room to another without spilling them.

The next time you see a couple of four years olds wandering suggest that they work together fetching and pairing. It has been my experience that they are initially suspect that you are actually inviting them to work together let alone move back and forth across the room. Soon, this work will be done daily and it will become part of the natural flow of the classroom. Yet, 4 year olds wander and perhaps this provides the mental rest their minds need to absorb and process knowledge. I am remembering again the t-shirt that read, “All who wander are not lost.” I need to get one of those.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The births of all things are weak and tender, therefore we should have our eyes intent on beginnings. Montaigne