Sunday, September 30, 2012

Botany with Seniors

Every two weeks we get this amazing gift at  The Bridge. "A" comes by an leads an art activity group. She is with the Alzheimer's Association here in Juneau and runs a variety of workshops and training for those working with, living with or coping with seniors with dementia or Alzheimer's. She is radiant with energy and ideas.

Last week her art activity was designed around fall leaves and watercolor painting. I assisted her and those participating. Before "A" invited the seniors to the table to do art work, she asked one of the aides to read a poem about fall that she had brought with her. She does this almost every time. It is her precursor to the creative acts that will follow.

"A" also prepares samples of art work before she arrives.

These simply serve as guides but do not dictate a specific outcome or creation. She highlights the process over the product. Too, she frequently creates a table centerpiece - or several of these - that again serve as visual clues for the activity of the day. Once she did this wonderful class on creating a beach scene and she brought with her these little trays that she had filled with sand and sea shells. She placed a few of these on the table and you could see some of the participants look up from their art work now and then to view them and to use them as an artistic compass to orientate them to where they were and what they were doing.

Last week, "A" brought with her a dozen or so pressed leaves that she placed in small groups down the center of the table.

She also placed red plastic cups at each setting. She put two paintbrushes in each. She explained that the red handled brushes were there to designate the cups as for painting not drinking. Therefore when one of the senior participants was using the other paintbrush, there would always be one in the cup to visually remind the cup's use. I take a lot of notes after "A" leaves so as to remember all of her good, good wisdom and knowledge.

As soon as one of the participants had paper, brushes, paint and leaves, she started painting. She did it her way. Yet, it so reminded me of work I have seen in the classroom with the botany cabinet. She painted an outline of the leaf with quick, short brush strokes.

She removed the leaf and then, while glancing back and forth to the leaf itself, she painted the veins and other details. The stem of her leaf remained me of a mouse's tail. It was long and curved. The painting evolved over 30 minutes. When it was done, she signed it. She started a second moments later.

Others traced templates of leaves, while some tried gluing them in place.

Colors varied from bright, pumpkin orange to soft, moss green.

Several completed their pieces and were satisfied. One participant, and this happens often with her, could not decide on how she wanted to place the leaves.

She is very invested in order. She arranged a few leaves in one pattern and then removed them to attempt another. After everyone else had put away their art materials and "A" had said goodbye, this participant remained at the table having glued two or three leaves in place and with another 5 or 6 sitting alongside the paper. She "finished" one composition and then moved onto a second.

I let her know that there was no timeline for her art work, that she could continue without the group. She welcomed this and did so. When she stood up and decide she was finished, she asked if she could take the rest of the leaves home and work on them later. Again, this is part of her routine regarding on-site activities. She watches others complete projects and then assess hers in relation to what she sees as "so much better than mine." However, she is an excellent artist and has previously painted pictures of horses that drew her many compliments from both peers and staff.  This is part of who she is now and that will not change, nor is it my intention to try and "change" her. Instead, I and the entire Bridge staff encourage and support how each senior participates now.

We celebrate the present moment - the only moment there is. The participant photoed directly above will not remember that she did art today or that any of the leaves glued down were glued down by her. We never insist a participant acknowledge their art work. We never say, "Come on, you remember. You did this with "A" this afternoon." That would truly be coming from our desire for acknowledgement. For an hour she expressed herself via fall leaves, glue and paint. That was the timeline of the experience. A half hour later, it no longer exists.

"A" reminds all of us, process over product. I am already looking forward to her next visit.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Celebrating Renilde Montessori


I was fortunate enough to have met Renilde Montessori and to have engaged in conversation with her. What do I remember about this remarkably graceful woman ? That she was an avid doodler. She drew the most amazing, complex and artistic doodles that I have ever seen. It is the small details we remember. She was a petite woman with an enormous vision. Farewell Renilde Montessori, farewell.

Follow the link to view AMI's recently released collection of tributes celebrating her life - Renilde Montessori


"Ice Fishing in Alaska" - Science with Seniors

Ok...we weren't actually "ice fishing," but we did have a lot of fun! Humor is key to engaging seniors in activities. It is not an across the board approach as each senior has their own unique way of engaging with the world at large and with others who occupy that world alongside them. Yet, a good laugh is often welcomed. Everyone had several last week during Science with Seniors.

I like to start each science group with a brief repeat of an activity from the week before. For those seniors who do not have advanced dementia, this prepares them for this week's activity. It reminds them of the enjoyment they had engaging with prior experiments. It also reminds me of a Montessori teaching philosophy about building trust from those that you are instructing, teaching, leading or guiding - pick your word. This trust that you are going to give interesting and challenging lessons opens the door to future teaching/leading/guiding moments. "Susan, you always show us stuff that makes us think," was one of the comments I was told by a senior last week. The woman who said it pointed her finger at me as she did and then said, "We don't tell you enough how much we appreciate you, but we really do, Susan. We really do." So what was it that we did? Oh, yeah! We went ice fishing.

I started the science group with two static electricity activities. These provided immediate results and such good, scientific eye candy. Both used balloons. All of the participants rubbed their balloons on their sweaters and vests. Next they held them over a plate of Styrofoam shapes. Those shapes jumped right up to meet the balloon.

The room buzzed with exclamations and laughter. Next,  I removed the Styrofoam shapes and poured about a fourth of a cup of dry Jello onto each of the participant's plates. Again they rubbed the balloons. Again they held them over their plates. It was like the balloons were mini vacuum cleaners. The Jello stirred, swirled and then rose up to cling to the balloons. Unfortunately, though, some of the seniors could not see, due to issues regarding their vision, the movement of the Jello as well as the Styrofoam shapes.

As interest in the Styrofoam and Jello was slowly waning, I walked around with my assistant and removed all of the items used for the static electricity exercises. I then spoke briefly about how the Styrofoam "clung" to the balloon. That the balloon could lift them up off the plate. I then explained that temperature can also cause similar reactions. This is when I stated, "It's time to go ice fishing!" Eyebrows raised and a few jaws dropped. I heard, as I hear every week, "What is she up to now?"

My assistant, or aide, placed plastic cups in front of each of the seniors and filled all of them three quarters full. I then gave each participant large, plastic tweezers (these are perfect in size, shape and color and cost $1.49 each) and a piece of yarn that was about six inches in length. We then placed an ice cube in each cup. When everyone had an ice cube, I asked that the participants tie the piece of yarn around the ice cube in the water and pull it up out of the cup. Faces leaned over the cups and then looked up at me like I was crazy. "How do you expect us to do that??" asked one of the more talkative seniors. "Don't worry. I will help you. But, first let me get some salt," I answered with a smile. "Salt? What do you need salt for?" she asked as I headed for the kitchen.

I returned to the table a few seconds later, the kitchen is quite close, and walked over to the senior who had asked me why I was getting the salt. I asked her to place one end of her piece of yarn on top of the ice cube in her cup. She did. Next, I sprinkled salt on the yarn and cube. I waited a few seconds and then asked her to pull up the cube. To her great surprise, she did just that. The cube clung to the piece of yarn and hovered in the air.

I went around the table repeating the above. Some ice cubes stuck immediately to the yarn. Others did not. When the cube did not stick, I explained that the temperature of both the ice and the water had been affected by the addition of the salt. I then replaced the ice cube with a fresh one. I also switched ends of the yarn. Finally, I sprinkled salt on both again. By the end of the group, all had pulled ice cubes up out of the water with their piece of yarn.

Waiting can be a very big challenge for seniors. They can lose interest quickly. Therefore, it is important to choose projects that take about 15 minutes or so to complete from beginning to end. This is why I generally do three science projects/activities during each Science with Seniors group. Also, and this is so important, if a senior decides that they no longer want to do the activity, even after you have briefly encouraged them to stay, simply assist them to get up and move to a place away from the group. This has actually happened at least once during all the activities I have led at The Bridge.

It has nothing to do with the competency of the staff or the quality of the activity. When a senior participant has decided that they are finished with whatever it is that they were doing, then that is it. Grace and courtesy is what you must offer. Insisting that they stay and participate is only about your ego and your ego has no place here. They may not even remember who you are, let alone what it is that you were attempting to show them.

If you are doing your activity at the same tables that they eat their snack and lunch, as I am, don't be surprised if one of the seniors states loudly, "I'm hungry." They are sitting at a table. They don't know what your science activity is all about or why you expect them to. They just know that this is where they eat and there is no food in front of them.

Again the Montessori method returns to me. Use materials appropriately. Unfortunately, these are the only tables available for large group activities - well maybe. I am thinking now of maybe moving this activity to the back room where our table puzzles are done. Yes, I think this might be a good idea. I will ask next week. If not, I will bring table cloths in to change the tables aesthetically and see if that is effective. Again, please remember you are all reading what I call my first field notes.  You are reading my diary, as is written beneath the name of this blog - The Diary of An AMI Montessori Theorist. Gosh, I am so glad I decided to call it that years ago!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Creative Writing with Seniors (2)

I continue to cut words and fragments of sentences out for the seniors to use with their creative writing. However, I added something new today.  I placed photos / pictures I had cut from various magazines on a tray for the participants to use. My intention was twofold. They could pick an image and use that image to prompt them to write something that was a response to it. The other option was that they could select an image, glue it to their paper but not write about it at all. It would serve as an added visual, decorative element. I must note a third option, which was that they did not have to select an image if they did not want to. One of the participants looked at all of the images I offered and said, "I don't like any of these." That was totally acceptable.

One of the means I used today to assist a couple of the participants to simply start constructing poems or prose pieces was to ask them to simply take five of the words/ sentence fragments from the trays and place them on their paper. Once they made their initial choices, they moved forward gluing them down in ways that they elected.

Let me state that a few of the images were chosen by me specifically because I thought that they might appeal to certain participants based on their personal histories. Also, some of the words and sentence fragments were included in the pile because of the same. Three of the participants are Tlingit. Acknowledging their native histories guided me to an extent in some of the material selection. I see that as an important part of my Montessori philosophy. Cultural and creative materials, as well as those in Practical Life, should, to some degree, represent where the seniors reside. They should resonate the history of place.

In some ways, the image limited the creative expression of the participants as their writing was harnessed to what the image was of rather than just flowing freely from them. Too, they wanted words that had to do specifically with the images and their interpretation of those images. I will have to think about how to pick images and words that do not result in my creative voice being too present in their work. I will be spending next Saturday working on this. I will let all of you know what I come up with.

Yet, two of the participants, both Tlingit, were immediately attracted to the images they chose. One of the seniors, a man, sorted through every tray of words / sentence fragments independently and then pieced them together into a prose piece that he titled after I read it aloud, "My Tee Pee." I watched him out of the corner of my eye, now and again, while I assisted others with trays and such.

When I first read his finished piece, I confess, it touched me deeply. My own step-father is a Seneca Indian. He was born on the territory and his voice returned to me as I listened to the prose piece of this male senior at The Bridge. (see the prose piece below identified as written by E1)

The second participant that was immediately attracted to her picture, a man with a bird on his arm, could not find the right cut-out words for the story that she wanted to tell. She had glued a handful in place, but she was getting a little flustered.

I asked if I could get her a pencil so she could write her own words and she said that would be useful. After she wrote a few sentences, she said she was tired and asked if I could write down what she wanted to say. I did. It was a prose piece about something in her childhood. The picture she chose reminded her of "a time long ago." (see the prose piece below identified as written by F1) It is the first memoir-like piece that any of the seniors have written during the creative writing workshops. It uses repetition and it has a feeling of both immediacy and intimacy.

After this fourth creative writing workshop was finished and I was packing up the supplies, one of my assistants approached me. He had helped out during the activity.  He said, "It is really great how you can hear each of their voices in their writing. They all chose words from the same trays, but their choices are so related to who they are as individuals." He was right, absolutely right.

These are the pieces written today:


We love -  gifts out of time - life is a miracle
Choosing hope - the whole truth
The best medicine is LOVE



Winter Stars
The Spirit of
It is hard to put into words the moment of truth


C1 (no picture chosen)

my friend
you must




A pretty face
Why is the moon big 
Make some magic
The sky is the limit.



A passage of seasons. A walk in the woods
We never forget the child's deep delight
Planet Earth. America America
Family is everything. Beauty in Motion
The place where you live. The spirit of the wolf. Back on the Prairie



Memory In The Place Where You Live


Makes me think of when I use to feed

ravens on my porch 
they sat on my arm
when I fed them.
In Angoon, on my porch.
They just came and
fed from my hand.
People would be amazed
when they saw me feed the
ravens sitting on my arm
on my porch
in Angoon. 



Sunday, September 23, 2012

Creative Writing with Seniors

I don't knit or quilt. I write. That is what I do the most when I am not at work. I have been a member of several writing workshops over the years. The writing prompts and techniques shared in the workshops often followed me into the Primary classroom. Now, my work with seniors includes leading a creative writing group (per my asking if I could please, oh please, do so) every Monday, or so.

Here is what I always remember - "I am not teaching them to write or read. These are not my students. These are seniors who have lived vast and diverse lives. They have much to share. I provide the means, they provide the story, the insight, the selection of words or sentences which they link together, with or without regard to grammar or punctuation. There are no misspelled words or literary errors. I am not correcting their work. I am assisting them, in a variety of ways, to tell what they want to tell."

Here are three things I have observed in regards to the creative writing activities that I have led -

1. ) The "telling" is important to those who will remember that they wrote a poem or a prose piece and those who won't.

2.) I acknowledge that part of this process is edited by my own choices and that no matter how spontaneous or "not present" I try to be, my voice is woven into some of their work. The degree to which it is "woven" in varies enormously.

3.) The (my) focus is on providing each senior with the opportunity to express themselves through written language.

Having stated the above, I want to quote here a few sentences from an article by Ariane Conrad that I was reading this morning in the June 2012 issue of "The Sun" magazine about the artist Ron Ortner. The following is part of a response given by Ortner to one of Conrad's questions -

"...I think art is profoundly and fundamentally life affirming. To make art is to give, to pour yourself into life, so you don't die with the music still inside you."

I see writing as art and it provides individuals of all ages, including the elderly, an opportunity to let the creative voice within to be released and then shared via the page.

Below are some my first field notes on writing with seniors. Too, I have included many of the pieces that were written / constructed by seniors at The Bridge. Also, photos of both the pieces being composed and the pieces themselves are posted.

Let me preface first that I have turned over and over again the pages of "I NEVER TOLD ANYBODY - Teaching Poetry Writing in a Nursing Home," by Kenneth Cole.

I became immediately aware during my first creative writing group for seniors at The Bridge that asking the participants to physically write was not going to result in much writing. All of them could write their names and a few could write several words without pain or becoming tired. However, most had difficulties resulting from arthritis, vision issues and the ability to hold steady the writing tool. Kenneth Cole wrote in the above noted book that he and his assistants/volunteers served as scribes for the seniors that he worked with. I sometimes have one of my assistants available to work with me during the writing workshop, but I am generally on my own. This enables other staff to work one on one with seniors not participating in the writing activity or to engage those individuals who have no interests in participating.

During the week between the first and the second writing group, I spent my lunches and other free times cutting out words and fragments of sentences from a variety of magazines. I chose those that were of a larger size. I also looked for a variety of fonts and colors in my selection.  Yes, my idea was based on magnetic poetry and, too, influenced by an art show I saw years ago at the Walker Art Center in Mpls., Minnesota on Beat Poetry.

A half hour before those interested in joining the writers' group were invited to sit at the designated tables, I went on a hunt in the kitchen for flat trays that I could spread or place all of my cuttings.  I wanted several so that they could be passed up and down the table by participants as one passes dishes of food. This would be a familiar act for them. 

Next, I encouraged each person to pick from the tray 5-10 words or sentence fragments. One or two hesitated stating that they weren't sure what to do, that they had never written poems or stories before and didn't know what they should do or that they weren't good at such things. I went through several words with them and asked, "Do you like this word? Is this something you might say?" After about five minutes they were gluing down those we chose together and their own, independent selections.

The energy in the room was amazing. There was a creative hum. Some were actually humming as they constructed their pieces. That inspired me to continue bringing these materials and to continue the creative writing work itself.

The senior below was very engaged in constructing his composition.

Towards the end of the workshops, I put out markers if participants wanted to embellish their prose pieces or sign them, as the senior did above. You might be able to see that he also gave his piece a title and put the date on it.


When I read the piece above,  I was unsure what word followed which. I asked the writer and she instructed me to put periods at places that she indicated. It made some of the words declamations. That, she said, was her intention. I have also placed numbers in front of words and sentence fragments as guided by a writer to assist in reading it and to also help them remember their initial intention regarding composition.

For the third creative writing group, I repeated the method used the week before. I removed any crinkled pre-cut words from the trays and added new ones. I also added words that had emotional content to them - angry, blues again, happy, etc. As well as sentence fragments that resonated bits and pieces of the stories they have told me during our days together.

One participant, who had been in all of the workshops, immediately started taking words from the trays and placing them on the table in front of her. I could hear her saying, "These go together. This makes a sentence." She moved pieces here and there. Her actions reminded me of the moveable alphabet.  

Their pieces gave voice to their inner voice in ways I could not have anticipated. That was a literary gift to me. I was their first reader. 

I save ten to fifteen minutes at the end of the creative writing workshop to read all of the pieces out loud. I read slowly and emphasized word placement. All of the senior have stated that they enjoyed hearing the writing by their peers. It is truly a powerful segment of the workshop. 

Here are the pieces written during the two creative writing workshops noted above. If a writer was in both workshops, as several were, their pieces are printed one after the other and noted as A1 and A2 or C1 and C2 so that their identity is protected. 


 A 1 -

There's no room for a German mom.
Are you destined to become your mother?
It is a good thing.    

A2 -

America, the beautiful.
Our family real tough
I want to turn over a new leaf. 
You want to be known for being good.
The wonder of...
Blues again
Some people are stuck.
Yes, there is beauty.
Be merry, be bright, be colorful. 
Ways to live well.
And, yes, it's all as
anything for a whole life




I want simple goodness
We thought yes
To their dreams and 
each other
your gentle joy,
good all over. 
Thank you.



You might even say
To make life even
A handful of your heart's desire.
Easier - every day.
Or is it the other



The beauty of your voice
wtih the strawberries.
As it sounds.
Transform your 
Long and Winding Road
You don't have to.
Left behind.
Behind closed doors.
The next.
New Uses for Old Things.



life lesson

What makes me simplify everything.
Experience the new season
coming home to the earth
to enjoy doing nothing
Make autumn fires
The ordinary American spirit
Unlock the secrets of 
Infinite possibilities
Under the sea
What's next



life lessons 
worth trying
something different
simple and classic
the things we make, make us.
It was the start of my new life.


All play and no work makes
a happy girl
life is a mystery
the place where you live is a masterpiece
you could be extraordinary
live for greatness



AND sweet


Made to last 
No one ever says
hello, stranger
who do you want
to be thankful for?
 a little bit longer.