Friday, August 31, 2012

Happy Birthday Maria Montessori

As I am now working with individuals who are mostly over the age of 60, I went and read a biographical sketch of Maria Montessori's life and noted all that she achieved post-60 years of age. Let me put it in very simple terms - She achieved much in her "senior" years.

Many men and women have and continue to be very productive after the age of sixty. I turned 40 the year I took my Montessori training. I clearly remember that one of the most attractive, professional attributes to becoming a Montessori teacher was that the older you got the more you were valued. I had two AMI trainers. One was in her late seventies.

In four and a half years, I will be sixty.  At sixty six, Maria Montessori, along with Mario, left to work in India.  There is no impending ending to our work as Montessorians. Maria Montessori has left a dual legacy. The first is of course in regards to the child. The second is as a productive individual who saw no limits on what could be achieved in the course of a life time.

Happy 142nd Birthday Maria Montessori!

Maria Montessori
                         August 1870 - May 1952

1936  Maria Montessori, at the age of 66, left Spain and settled in Holland. 
1939  September:  World War II broke out in Europe.
October:  Dr. Montessori aged sixty-nine and her son Mario left Holland to work in India. 
1946  July 30th:  Dr. Montessori returned to Amsterdam. 
1947  Dr. Montessori aged seventy-six, undertook a lecture tour in India which lasted for two years. 
1948  What You Should Know About Your Child and The Discovery of the Child were published.
1949  Dr. Montessori visited Pakistan, Italy, France, Austria, Britain and Ireland.  The Absorbent Mind was published and she was nominated for the Noble Peace Prize. 
1950  At the age of seventy-nine, Dr. Montessori gave lecture tours in Norway and Sweden.
June:  She spoke to the United Nations education conference in Florence, Italy about the 'International year of the Child' and was again nominated for the Noble Peace Prize.
1951  July:  Dr. Montessori ran a training course at Innsbruck, Austria.  For the third and final time Dr. Montessori was nominated for the Noble Peace Prize. 
1952  May 6th:  At the age of eighty-one, Dr. Montessori died in her friends garden at Noordwijk aan Zee in Holland.  She was buried in the local cemetery in Noordwijk. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Science For Seniors (2)

It was amazingly sunny and warm here in Juneau, Alaska today. I think it got up to 68. It was ideal weather for part of today's science projects as the sun's bright rays filtered through the colored water that we prepared.

When I present Science for Seniors there is often more than one activity prepared and completed. When we did volcanoes last week, that was a single activity but it was divided into two components, both done on the same day. One was the construction of the volcano and its illustration and the other was actually mixing together the ingredients to make the "lava" flow. The first was done during our daily morning "coffee and chat." The second was done after snack during the time designated for science. Today I presented 4 small activities that moved from one to the other. The last being a sort of "grand finale."

After lunch, staff moved the tables so that two of them were placed next to each other so that eight participants could sit together.  I invited all of the seniors to come to the tables for science. I had already positioned place-mats on the table. After everyone sat down, I spoke briefly about things that mix and things that don't. I placed empty bottles that had been recycled from our kitchen in front of each individual. I then poured water in each. Next I added yellow food coloring to each of the jars.

I let the color seep into the water and then added blue to make green. This was a repeat of an activity that I had done a week ago. However, the previous lesson was not remembered by any of today's
participants even though they had all done it. 

I walked around the table and repeated verbally that yellow and blue make green. I asked them  to shake their jars and to note that they could no longer see the yellow or the blue. I stated, "Some things mix together and once they have you can not separate them." Everyone shook their heads acknowledging that to be true.

I then walked around the two tables and added oil to the green water in the jars. I asked as I poured if the oil was mixing or not. Several of the seniors spoke up and said that the oil was not mixing with the colored water. They then noted that the oil had settled on the top of the water and was remaining separate from it. I asked if the oil had turned green like the colored water and all answer no. One of the participants held up her jar and said, "See Susan, the oil is yellow like it always is."

After a few minutes of observing the oil floating on top of the water, I collected all of the jars and placed them on a third table out of the way.

Next I handed out pie tins. I did not have enough for everyone so I gave a couple of the seniors glass baking trays. I reviewed everything that we had already done. I said that some things mix and some things do not. One of the seniors declared, "Oil and water don't mix." I then added that some things are repealed by others, that they move away from a substance or an ingredient and that that movement may be visible.

I poured enough milk into each pie tin and baking trays to cover the bottom. Several seniors started laughing and asked, "Is this our snack?" They had a good laugh on me!

When all had been given milk, I pulled out a pepper shaker. I heard one of the participants blurt out, "What is she doing now?" I walked around and put a dash of pepper into each tin and tray. Before I added the last ingredient, I stood at the top of one of the tables and stated, "Science is like magic. The pepper is floating on the taut surface of the milk. I am going to do something to break that surface and each of you will be surprise to see what the pepper does." The room became completely quiet.

 I quasi-dramatically revealed the next ingredient - dish soap. "What?!" was one of the senior's comments. I poured some on the lid of one of the jars and placed the tip of a flexible straw into the soap. I handed the straw to the person seated closest to me on the right and asked that she carefully drop the soap from the straw into the middle of the pepper. I then handed straws to the others and provided them with dish soap also.

I have to comment here that this act reminded me so much of when we have Montessori students pour water from a pitcher and ask them to wait until the last drop. This is what each senior did, sort of. They held the straw over the pepper and then said out loud, "Just wait, its coming." A moment would pass and then a drop of soap would fall from the straw.

When the soap hit the pepper it scattered moving away from the center to the periphery of the tin or pan. Several seniors let their jaws drop! It was so visually cool! This was the third activity of the four I had planned.

After a few moments of looking at the pepper and studying its reaction to the soap, I cleared everything away. I quickly washed the tins and the pans in a nearby sink. I asked what we had first done this afternoon. Several spoke up and recalled the color mixing of yellow and blue in the water filled jars. I agreed with their answer and then stated that we were now going to return to using the food coloring. I explained that the activity was going to be very similar to the pepper and milk one, but that the food coloring was going to replace the pepper.  I then leaned across the table and told everyone that this was going to be the "grand finale" of today's Science for Seniors. I said that they should each get ready to be wonderfully surprised. They were!

Again I placed the pie tins and the dishes in front of each participant. Again I poured milk into them. Next, I had each of the seniors squeeze food coloring, three different colors, onto the milk. Again the room was silent.

I handed out the straws and passed around the lid filled with dish soap. "Wow! Wow! That's amazing! I never imagined that! Wow! It keeps changing! I love it! Wow!" That was the collective response from all of the participants for about five minutes.

 I was so glad that it worked! We made a color wheel with milk. Whew!!! All of the science projects were a success and the positive reaction was so affirming!

One participant sat for a good while after all of the others had gotten up and where beginning to prepare to go home for the evening. I drew close to her. She kept looking into her pie tin and saying, "Look Susan, it keeps changing. Did you see that? Look there! Its' amazing! Look, there its changing again." She sat for another five minutes repeating all of the above over and over again. Then she looked at me and said, "It's like God's hand is in there creating all of that, like the universe is being made and we get to watch."

 "Let us give the [individual] a vision of the whole universe... for all things are part of the universe, and are connected with each other to form one whole unity."

----Maria Montessori- To Educate the Human Potential

After another minute, she looked at me and said, "All these things you show us Susan, it's like your stimulating our brains." I have to admit that I had to work really hard not to have tears well up in my eyes - really hard.

(ps. In the above quote, I replaced the word child with the word individual)

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Science For Seniors

I love science. I absolutely do. I have so many wonderful memories of giving science lessons in the Primary classroom and, too, of watching the students do them independently afterwards.

Years ago, when I spent my summer vacations teaching yoga at a youth camp, the head of the camp said he was looking for a magician to hire that would work with the children teaching them tricks. I inquired more about the qualifications he was looking for in such an individual and he answered, "Well, the best magicians are science teachers. Do you know any science teachers?"

Yes, there is much about science that appears to be magical. Yet, it also requires just the right combinations of this and that to create the other. That "other" is the reaction or the product of the scientific act. What is so magical about it is that it is often eye candy. Everyone loves to see bubbling concoctions or magnetic couplings. Everyone includes seniors.

My first Science for Seniors activity was in fact one science and two art activities. The basic subject was coloring mixing.

After all of the seniors were seated at the designated tables, I asked if anyone knew the three basic colors. There was no reply so I informed them - blue, red and yellow. I held up color sheets of paper for them to view. I had covered the table with newspaper earlier to limit the amount of  clean-up needed afterwards. I placed medium sized jars in front of each of the seniors and one in front of myself. I wanted the jars to be of medium size so that each individual could easily see the activity for themselves and experience it personally.  The small, white, six cupped, plastic trays that I had used in the Montessori classroom would not provide the three-dimensional viewing opportunities I wanted them to experience at The Bridge.

I opened the lid of my jar and poured water into it from a pitcher I had placed nearby. I filled the jar hallway. I raised the jar and showed everyone the clear water. Next I held a tube of blue food coloring in my hand and asked all what color it was. The answer, "Blue" was given. I squeezed some into the opened mouth of the jar and watched as the water turned red. There were gasps made by some of the seniors. It amazed them. I next held out the tube of red food coloring and did the same as I had with the blue. When the red and blue food coloring were in the jar, I put the lid back on and shook the jar. The color purple was dark and evident. One of the seniors said, "I have never seen anything like that. It turned purple! Can you do that again?"

Instead of doing it again myself, I provided each of the seniors with water for their jars and tubes of food coloring. I let them decide what to mix with what. All were fascinated. All were participating.

After the color mixing Senior Science activity, I then handed out large, white coffee filters and encouraged each to squirt some of the food coloring onto them. I then handed out spoons and small, containers of water. I asked each participant to spoon some water onto the food-colored, coffee filters. Next, I said to use the back of the spoons to spread the colors around mixing them as they went. The scene resembled a tie-dye festival. In fact one of the seniors suddenly began speaking about "The Grateful Dead."

When these were completed, we moved onto the final activity - mixing colors when creating a drawing or other composition. I removed the coffee filters and water and placed trays of oil pastels on the table. I handed out large sheets of white paper and invited them to use the same primary colors - red, blue and yellow - and to also use their fingers to smudge the colors together so as to mix them as we had in the jars with the food coloring. Everyone began immediately and worked on their individual pieces for 20-25 minutes.


The time allotted for all three activities was an hour. I never felt that we were rushed or that any of the seniors felt confused or overwhelmed. Instead, the activities flowed into one and other. It was very successful. One of the seniors looked at me after and asked, "What do you call what we just did Susan?" I answered, "Science for Seniors." She responded, "That's good! I like it!"

However, one of the participants decided that he just wanted to draw and so he did. He drew a picture of himself as a dog. He was quite pleased with it. 

I lead a Science for Senors group every week now at the Bridge. Next week, on Hawaii Day, we are going to make volcanoes!

Maria Montessori wrote about science, "We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry."  For me, it made sense to move from science to art; to move from scientific wonder to artistic expression. I can't help but say that famous, coined Montessori phrase, "Leap to abstraction," while still acknowledging that they may not remember the leap at all, let alone the science or the art. But during that hour, their hands moved, their eyes watched in wonder and they creatively expressed themselves. Dwell in the moment.

Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis
on which the world earth revolves - slowly, evenly, without
rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment.
Only this moment is life.
    -  Thich Nhat Hanh

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Art with Seniors - Abstract Collages

Last Thursday I spent part of the morning cutting out Matisse-like shapes. I was leading a large group, art activity later that day. Most of the seniors at the Bridge can still use scissors but their hands tire quickly. For projects that require a lot of cutting I do it as part of the prep work. It also reduces frustration or resignation.

I invited all of the seniors to join me at two of the tables that we use for both table games and for meals/snacks. Two of the seniors opted not to join and instead retreated to the recliners in the back room. The rest sat down. I talked briefly about art and about how some art is called abstract. I held up a piece of black paper and then selected a couple of the pre-cut shapes from a small stack. I held the shapes up against the paper. I spoke about composition and about movement in artwork. One of the younger seniors has a great affection for jazz and blues. He listened carefully to my words and shook his head in agreement.

I then placed several of the pre-cut shapes out on the table in front of the seated seniors. I also gave each person a piece of black paper and some glue. Lastly, I invited them to select several pieces and to move them around their paper a bit until they had constructed the composition that most appealed to them.

Inviting them to select their own shapes is a very important component. It is an exercise in decision making. It provides them the opportunity to make choices and to accept those choices.

One of the cornerstones of the Montessori philosophy is to promote each individual's independence. The balance between dependence and independence needs to be continually promoted. When one of the seniors asked me how to get the glue out of the glue stick, I twisted the base slowly to show how it rises up the tube and handed it back to her. I did not glue the piece on for her, she did. 

After a few minutes of placing one piece here and then there, all were ready to start gluing them in place. It was wonderful to watch their hands move. They turned the pieces over and applied the glue. They turned them again and glued them in place.

Some added small bits here and there. One woman said her middle piece had the shape of a woman and she wanted to add small curls of color to signify a sense of movement, of dance. She looked at me after she glued the curls and said, "I have never done anything like this. I never worked with just shapes, but I like it. I like it a lot."

In my classroom I invited my students to add details to their work. I did the same during this project with the seniors. I removed the remaining pieces of paper that had not been selected for use. I then placed oil pastels on the tables and invited all to add details to their art work. A few declined saying that they liked their work as is. Others immediately reached for the pastels and began working. I walked around the periphery of the table rarely assisting.

When all of the pieces were completed, they were taped up on the outside of one of the cabinets. Different than the Montessori world, when working with seniors with dementia a lot of praise and compliments are given. Too, art work done by seniors is often displayed on the walls.

Let me talk a little about the displaying of art work. I am still relatively new at my position but I have come to see the display of art works in a two-fold manner. The first is that the seniors want to know that they can still achieve success in a variety of ways. They see the art on the walls and, because it is not framed, have a level of awareness that it was done either by them and/or another senior. The second reason is that the art displayed is for the caregivers. Daughters, sons, grandchildren and others come in to the center and express joy at the sight of work done by their loved ones. They often state that they were unaware that their parent or grandparent could do art or other activities. The important thing to state here is that the senior, themselves, may not recall having done the art work earlier that day.

"My name is on that one so I guess I did it," is a common response by the seniors after art work is completed and hung up. Another frequent response that I get from the seniors at the Bridge is, "Susan, I think I did one of those but I don't remember which one. Can you point out the one I did?" When I do their second response is, "Oh, yes, that looks like something I would do."

Not all of the seniors at the Bridge have advanced dementia, that is not yet, and so some do recognize their art work. The important thing which I have learned is not to ask them which one is theirs as they may become agitated and frustrated because they won't know. Too, they may not join the group again next time I invite them for an art activity.

Here I am reminded of when children first learn to write. They write before they read in the Montessori Casa. We do not ask them to read their initial writings back to us because, simply put, they can't read it. This request only leads to self-doubt, embarrassment and, in extreme cases, the abandonment by the child of the act of writing.  At the Bridge and in the Montessori Casa, the dignity of the individual must be preserved and protected.

So why do art activities with seniors if they can not recall doing the work later? When working with individuals suffering from dementia the goal is to provide them opportunities to engage in the moment and to foster creativity and enjoyment during that moment. Too, working with paintbrushes and colored pencils, as well as with sewing needles and other handicraft tools, helps to strengthen the prehensile grip and eye/hand co-ordination. This is the same with children in the Casa.

Working with individuals with dementia demands that I let go of my ego regarding the results of activities. I am not trying to cure them, nor am I trying to prove that Montessori is a magic wand. I am simply preparing the materials, presenting them and observing each senior use them. I offer my hand to assist as needed and I offer my smile. I listen to their stories, again and again, that tell the collective details of their lives. I get to know them as individuals. I watch their hands and find myself in a state of wonder and amazement. I make sure that they are physically stable, fill their glasses with ice and bake something artificially sweetened for their lunch-time desert. I reside in the moment with them, side by side, and then move on to the next moment. Maria Montessori wrote the following about the child. I have removed the word "child" and inserted "an individual with dementia."

 "Respect all the reasonable forms of activity in which an individual with dementia engages and try to understand them."

Friday, August 24, 2012

It Has Been A Good While Since...

It has been a good while since I last posted on my blog. Much has happened in my life since December. Before I write about some of these changes embrace this thought - there is a season for all things.

I have left the Montessori classroom. I walked out the back door of Juneau Montessori School on the last day of May and headed down the road towards the bus stop. I stood there, all alone, with tears running down my face asking myself what my life would be like without children.

Yet, I had not left the classroom without having first mapped a new path for my Montessori life. Yes, I was leaving the Primary classroom. No, I was not leaving Montessori. I had accepted a position that would provide me the opportunity to apply Montessori methods outside the classroom setting.

I am now the activities co-coordinator at a day program for seniors with dementia and/or Alzheimer's disease. A big part of my job is to design and implement activities. Before I accepted the position I spent hours reading articles on-line about Montessori and dementia. Across the globe, more and more senior facilities are including Montessori activities and utilizing the method with their residents. I am now a part of this frontier Montessori movement.

My blog, "The Moveable Alphabet," will now record the work I will be doing with seniors who attend The Bridge, which is operated by Catholic Community Services here in Juneau, Alaska. They have consented to my use of photographs taken of the clients doing activities, to my writing about those activities and posting both on my blog. However, my blog is independent of CCS and my ideas stated here may not represent theirs. Whew...enough legal jargon. I am very grateful that they have given me their permission and am now anxious to start writing posts.

So get ready to read. I will be posting more this weekend, and yes, I have photos to share. Montessori and Seniors is my new path.

There is a much loved saying in the Montessori world that I often quoted - "Never underestimate the creative intelligence of a child." I have modified that saying and hear myself reciting it silently to myself almost daily at The Bridge - "Never underestimate the creative intelligence of an individual with dementia." It is my personal pledge.

Join me on this new path. Write me comments. Let me know if you have used Montessori materials with seniors. If you have more to say then just a comment write me at  The Montessori method is a global method and it's application is vast. I have wiped away the tears and embraced my new path. Already I feel passionate about it!

Below are a few links for interested readers to learn more about Montessori and Dementia:

This New York Times article gives a wonderful overview: Full Circle

I have not read Dr Cameron's book yet. It is on my long reading list:
Montessori Based Activities for Persons with Dementia

Unlocking What Remains, Activities for Dementia Care -
Observing Montessori Based Activities at an Alzheimer's Unit