Sunday, May 11, 2014

"Nothing goes into the mind that does not first go through the hands."

I was told this quote when I was taking my AMI training at the Montessori Training Center of Minnesota almost 20 years ago. I was told it was a modified version of the Aristotle quote,“There is nothing in the intellect that was not first developed in the senses." I have repeated it more times than I can count to assistants, parents, heads of schools and non-Montessorians as a means of explaining a component of the method referred to as sensorial education.

Watching a child do a work with a blindfold on has always served as visual evidence of the hand-mind connection. Too, this notion of the mind gaining access to knowledge through the hand reinforced my educated belief in the value of muscular memory.

I often speak of having a greater understanding of both the direct and indirect purposes of the Montessori materials via my own touching of said materials and the muscular memory that is stored within me due to that touching over a period of fifteen plus years. My cultivated hand-mind relationship has provided me the opportunity to speculate on the harmonic interplay between all of the materials in the classroom. It is those speculations which serve my own leaps towards abstraction in the form of extensions.

Recently, I have been turning the phrase, "Nothing goes into the mind that does not first go through the hands," over and over again in my mind, asking myself if I truly understand what it means for something to "go through the hands." It seems a concrete, and even obvious, statement. Simply explained, the hands are the instruments of the mind. You touch something and immediately information regarding its texture, temperature, color and, possibly, weight is gathered and recorded. That is easy enough to comprehend. Yet, I have been asking myself whether or not I really get the more abstract qualities of grasping something.

I have been captivated by the gesturing my older students make with their hands when they are formulating an opinion or leaping towards a greater understanding of a complex concept. It appears as if they are wrestling out an idea they have in their minds and that they are using their hands to give shape or form to that otherwise invisible and newly born notion.

When I am authoring a blog post or an article and I have to describe in detail elements of lessons I have given, I hold one of my hands up in the air so as to mold it in various ways so that I may re-imagine the geometric forms my students create or the cursive letters they form. As my fingers shift and light spills through the gaps between them, my thoughts synthesize and are then manifested onto the page or screen via my hands and the tools needed, i.e., pencil, keyboard, etc.

I am now recalling one of the fundamental laws in physics which states for every motion there is an equal and opposite motion. Therefore,  the statement, "Nothing goes into the mind that does not go first through the hands," should be couple with the following, "Nothing goes into the hands that does not first go through the mind." This duality may also be viewed as an infinite loop; an infinite dialog of input and output / output and input.

Here, again, I pose the question, "What is implied by the statement to go through the hands?" Does form have to have a physicality to it or can it simply be the shape of an idea expressed through the hands? And once that shape is formed, is it then measured and valued by the very hands that first gave it form? The sequence would then be: mental idea, wrestling of idea into an invisible form via the hands, qualities of that form assessed by the hands and recorded in the mind, mind expresses form via hands into a physical, i.e., concrete object - an infinite looping of sequential actions.

Why is this important for a lead guide to acknowledge within the Montessori classroom? Every child should be provided the opportunity and the freedom to give expression to their gathered and reflected upon ideas. Every child should be provided enough non-lesson time to engage in an inner dialogue with themselves. This inner dialog maintains the input / output loop as it processes new information, synthesizes it with old and provides opportunity for the two to merge into an abstract revelation. This is the developing and advancing of the child as a unique individual who's singular insights serve to both define himself/herself and to support the collective community of the entire classroom. Those children who actualizes this are the active citizens of their current arena, the classroom, and of the future: entrepreneurs, politicians, humanitarians and more.

Next time you sit down to write observations in your classroom, dedicate time to noting the origami of hand movements your older students make. Then, after several moments of observing, approach a couple of them with large sheets of white paper and ask them to illustrate all that they are thinking. Make sure the paper is large enough to give expression to their ideas and that, too, they have sharp pencils available to them.  After you have provided them with these tools and a place to work, go and work with a few younger children and serve their needs.

Twenty minutes later, or so, casually find a seat near those students sketching out their ideas and, with calm, centered energy, ask them to tell you all about what they are working on, to add more details to their work, to think one more thought along with all the other thoughts they have had and prompt this thought-seeking with open-ended questions such as, "What opens in the morning and closes in the evening?" "What's the shape of that thing?"

Finally, lean back in your chair, lift up your own hands and let them dance through the air for just a moment and then place them back on your lap. Now get ready to watch and to listen to the great genius of young children's minds and view them wrestle out into the open air their ideas regarding physics, geometry, math, art and all that defines humanity. Lastly, do not weep at the wonder of it all. Rejoice in the gift of your role as a guide.

Later, at home, when sitting amongst friends and family, re-tell the story of Helen Keller and her great accomplishments, of Einstein's frequent walks with Madame Curie and their vivid conversations, of children gesturing profound thoughts through their small cupped hands, each etched with map lines before their own birth. And as you tell all these stories, let your hands take flight and see before you the shape of all that occupies your own thoughts.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

"All I heard were the deer and the deer told me they were watching over me."

Next week, when I am feeling better, (I was in a bike accident and I am home from school recovering) I am going to approach the administrator at the senior center right next door to Toad Hill Montessori School, where I am the lead teacher, and ask them if I can teach either science, art or creative writing there once a week. I really miss the elderly and their good, good stories.


If you work with elders you work with individuals who hold within themselves a historical record of the world at large. In some cases these historians are the last living witnesses to the most noteworthy events of the past one hundred years. Too, here in Alaska, native elders remember a life not often recorded in textbooks, but instead shared within their own villages or communities. This is the same for most indigenous people around the world.

A volunteer from the Alzheimer's Association comes to the Bridge to lead an art activity with the seniors twice a month. The activity she prepared for today was centered around the theme of "Our Childhood Homes." After each of the participating seniors were seated, she invited them to think about their place of birth and to began sketching that place on the sheets of paper that had been handed out to them.

I entered the room halfway through the activity and noticed one of the Tlingit seniors drawing a small house on her paper. Then she wrote across the paper where this and that was. It was a fascinating image that had map-like qualities. I knew from a previous drawing of her's that she was born inside a smoke house. The piece she was working on now was her "childhood home" and the place where she entered the world.  Close-up of her picture below:

I sat down next to her and began asking her a few questions about her drawing. Slowly but willingly, she told me stories of thirteen families living in this small house at the same time, of fishing for salmon, of netting and drying seaweed. She also told me a story about running-away from home, from the smoke house, when she was a child. Here is all that she told me:

"I am thinking of them poor days in the 1950's. We all slept inside around the bonfire in the middle of the smoke house. There were thirteen families living there together. I am proud of my family. We learned a lot from them. They told us how to can the fish. We did a lot of fishing ourselves. We pulled the fish in with nets and we cut them up.

For the seaweed we had to go far out into the ocean to get it. They told us not to take any seaweed where dead people were or near where people went to the bathroom. That's why we had to go real far out into the ocean to get the seaweed. Then we dried the seaweed in the smoke house on one side and then we turned it the next day onto the other side. The next day we turned it again and then we left it there for a week until it gets real dry and then we canned it or we ate that. Person got to learn to go way out to get beyond the dead people to get the seaweed.

I was away from home for a whole week when I was a kid.  I left a stick in a tree pointing to the smoke house so I would know how to get back. Someone told me how to do that. I ran away from home and I slept out in the woods. I woke up in the morning and did feel scared the first day, but then I told myself I don't need nobody, so I just kept moving. All I heard were the deer and the deer told me they were watching over me. I came back after a week. I found my stick and it showed me where to go. It's a real good past I got."

Here is a final close-up of the drawing she did today:

The above three paragraphs are part of this woman's autobiography, the narrative of the self. The questions stirring within me are how to assist her in adding more details, to create a timeline, to start a list of family names, on and on. She has drawn this map of a smoke house, a vegetable garden and the beach. She has noted at the bottom of the page - 13 familys home (Klawock). She has outlined much and she is right, she has a real good past.

Documenting oral histories told by elders attending or residing in senior facilities is on-going work around the world. Much has been unrecorded, and that is lost testimony to the collective history at large. What Montessori lessons are there to assist in this documentation? My initial answer came to me via a visual memory of children in Elementary II doing timelines in their classroom. That is a starting point. I have much reading to do this weekend on that work.

Tonight, though, I just want to close my eyes and imagine a deer talking to me; telling me that it's watching over me. I want to breathe in the smell of salmon and seaweed hanging inside the smoke house. Finally, I want to bend down onto my knees and pull weeds in the vegetable garden alongside all those whose hands planted what grew there. This is what good stories do. They make history come alive. Can you hear the deer talking to you?