Sunday, February 5, 2017

Montessori Green Reading Program - Reimagined

I am pleased to introduce the reformatted and imagined Green reading program.  This has been years in the making and there are still portions under construction.  There are some specific reasons this has happened and I think it worth having a discussion about learning to read.

There are enough children in the world that do not learn language easily and smoothly.  I have known droves of children who could quickly move ahead in reading.  They made jumps in a single day.  Some of my own children could do that, some could not.  Because my oldest daughter really struggled to learn to read it has become very important for me to learn how to break the Montessori language program down in a way that it will fill in those gaps.  There are plenty of children who enter my life every year who also struggle to learn reading.  I want such a challenge to be beatable.  These children need explicit instruction and it is our challenge to do that in such a way that compliments a Montessori, self learning style.  You can never tell which rules someone will get quickly, and which have to be broken down.  It varies so widely.

What I have been looking for is something that truly scaffold skills.  Since all the reading programs we have purchased and tried are either missing too much, do not build skills on each other, or do not follow a coherent pattern I have decided to do it myself.  I do not in any way believe I am remotely finished with updates and changes to the program, but this is a great start!

The groupings have changed significantly from any of my previous work.  I have reference the Orton-Gilligham sequence as well as several other well known programs.  I have tried to stay close to the OG method while still making allowances for the needs of this program.  Because of the scaffolding nature of this sequence it would be very tricky to find images if we stayed purely with the OR sequence so there had to be some changes made.

First I should like to bring to your attention the way in which all the parts of the program are used.  For each difficulty there are 6 steps.  NOTICE that the difficulty is isolated in red.

#1 - Picture to Word Cards: using this work the child matches all the picture cards to the corresponding word card.  There is a control of error on the back of each card for the self checking.  When checking for mastery the guide sits with the child while they show their knowledge.  If a child peeks at the back of the card you would simply say something like, "You are getting close.  Try it again and get me when you feel you've got it."  Once there has been mastery the child then records these words in their language notebook or binder.

Picture to Word Cards

#2 - Domino Cards: this work is new, fun, and engaging for the children.  Each domino has the word first and the child looks for the matching picture to be found at the bottom of the mat.  There is a red dot at both the beginning and the end to show where to start and stop.  Mastery is shown by the guide watching the child put the domino chain together independently.  Once mastery has been achieved the child records these words in their language notebook or binder.


#3 - Word Booklets: the child practices reading words in booklet form.  Mastery is shown when the child reads through the book with ease.  Once mastery has been achieved the child records these words in their language notebook or binder.  This booklet acts as a means for the child to practice their knew skill.

Single Word Booklets

#4 - Printed Moveable Alphabet Sentence Building with Picture Prompts: Several of the children in my current class have said that this is their favorite part of each drawer.  Each card has an interesting picture with a word containing the specific difficulty on the back.  The black and red printed alphabet are used to create a sentence of the child's choosing.  There is often a need to coach the child for a few sentences before they begin to figure out how to make their own sentences based on the picture.  They feel pretty accomplished with their sentences.  The spelling/punctuation we are most concerned with is the isolated difficulty (i.e. a-e saying long a) and capitals and periods.  Inventive spelling is fine except in the case of any previously learned difficulties or punctuation lessons a specific child has had during Writer's Workshop or Word Study.  Once they have had their sentence checked by a guide they record it in their language notebook or binder.  This work provides a motivation for spelling as well as for writing practice.

Picture Prompts for Building Sentences with the Printed Alphabet

#4a - Red and Black Printed Alphabets in Lower and Uppercase Letters: In the lesson presentation portion of this post you can learn how to use these files for your classroom.  I keep my sets in these boxes from Amazon:

Red and Black Printed Alphabet in Uppercase Letters 

Red and Black Printed Alphabet in Lowercase Letters

#5 - Word Lists: This work is meant to give the child practice in reading more words with this isolated difficulty.  When the child can read all of the words with ease and fluency they may then write the words in their language notebook or binder.  Notice that the difficulty is no longer in red.

Word Lists

#6 - Sentence Strips: The child reads for practice a set of four sentences for each difficulty.  High frequency words (Fry words are used) are included in the weekly practice for the child.  The full set of Pink, Blue and Green word cards in sets will be made available once the series is completed.  Once a child can smoothly and fluently read their sentence to a guide they may write it down in their language notebook or binder. Early Elementary: Be certain to edit with the child for capitalization and punctuation.

Sentence Strips

_ _ _ _ _

An Initial Presentation

When I begin the first drawer with the children I set them down with the entire drawer and all its components and the black and red printed alphabets.  There will be some children who have the capacity to be at this reading level and still need an individual presentation on each component so take that into account when preparing for this lesson.  Each pouch is numbered and I point that out to the children.  I let them know that they are so advanced now they will be able to begin working through these boxes at their own pace and as quickly as they are ready.   This tends to get them excited right from the start.  I let them know that each new box (or set of boxes) needs a lesson and say you get to have your first lesson right now.  I introduce the black and red printed alphabet.  I say that because they are now more advanced they may use this special kind of moveable alphabet.  Since the first set is Magic e I use the black printed alphabet to write the word can.  I say, "This is the word can.  I am going to add the letter e to the end of the word can."  I add the letter e and say, "This letter e is going to change the word can into something new."  I then take the red printed  e out of the box and lay it at the end of the word.  I then lay the red a over the black a.  I say that when an e is added to the end of a word it usually makes the vowel say its name and we discover together what new word we have made.  We practice with several other words (including other vowels such as pin/pine, hop/hope, cub/cube); always adding the red e at the end and laying the red vowel over the black one.  Once we finish this part of the lesson I say that there are several parts to one box and they need to do them in order.  I also say how important it is that each one be mastered before moving onto the next.  If there are children who need each part of the lesson explained I will only present one step of the box at a time. (Many Early Childhood children fall under this category).   I pull out #1 - Picture to Word Card Matching and mention that they will recognize this work from the blue reading series.  I do a quick refresher on how to do this work and let them know to find an adult to see their work when they are ready to master it.  I then put that one away in the box and pull out #2 - Word and Picture Dominoes and show show special interest in the beginning and ending dots.  I say, "You will know where to begin and where to end by paying attention to these dots."  I put together the first set of dominoes so they can see how this work is done and tell them to find a guide when they are ready to master off this work.  I return this work to the box and move on to #3 - Single Word Booklets.  I mention how quickly they will be able to read these new words with all the practice they will be getting in.  I show them how to read through the booklet and make certain to find the front page to set it right for the next person and tell them to find a guide when they are ready to master off this work.  I put this work back in the box and get ready to show #4 - Picture Prompts for Sentence Building with the Moveable Alphabet.   I show one picture card on the front and then flip it onto the back.  I like to show the pink lake first because it is a bit sensational.  I say, "Look, Here is a lake and it is pink!  Look here on the back of this card, it says lake.  I am going to write a sentence about this lake on my mat."  I proceed to ask them what kind of sentence I could build about a pink lake.  I take their suggestions and build a sentence.  I make certain to point out that the difficulty will be in red and nothing else.  I put this work back as well as the printed alphabet letters and move onto #5 - Word Lists.  I mention how they will recognize how this work from the blue reading series and tell them to find a guide when they feel they are ready to master this work and return this work to the box.  I show them #6 - Sentence Strips as well as the matching High Frequency Words set.  I tell them that this work will help them become good readers and that the sentences have the High Frequency Words in them that will help them read a lot of other things as well.  I return this work to the box.  I reiterate the importance of finding a guide before moving from one work to another as well as the requirement that only one work from the box be out at a time.  I let them know they may do this work whenever they like and have the children help me return all the parts of the lesson to their proper place before allowing them to use it.  Sometimes a new set of difficulties will require a new lesson about how to use the set, but often each new box needs a new lesson on the rule that accompanies it.  You can never suppose anything and it it much better to be safe than for the children to flounder and get frustrated.

Finally - The Green Reading Series has been uploaded to the Free Downloads site here.  You can navigate through the different sets that are available now and I will update more as I get them.  I am currently working on the sentence strips for Set D.  There is a Reading Program Check-off List we use and it will become also become available when the program is finished.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Volcano materials for Early Childhood

I was saying how many files I have that are not available on this blog and think it is about time to get some of them uploaded to share with everyone.  We have been studying plate tectonics in our Early Elementary class over the last few weeks and we are finally prepared to move onto volcanoes and their types.  I have files and suggested materials for both the Early Childhood and Early Elementary classroom.  My next post will deal with Elementary files and suggestions.

Volcanoes are so fun no matter what age the child.  It doesn't seem to get too boring to study every year from age 3 to 9 and even older.  To begin with it is great to show the children a video of an erupting volcano.  This is a good route to go simply because we cannot take the children to a live volcano unless you have the great opportunity to live in a place like Hawaii or Iceland where active volcanoes can be seen up close.  These are a couple of suggested videos from the web here and here.  After they have seen the video you can have a conversation about what they noticed about video.  This is a great time to show the children a volcano demonstration.  I have created several volcanoes from kits.  I've usually found one at Michaels and used my 40% off coupon.  There are several to choose from and here are some great choices with a link to Amazon:

Learning Resources Erupting Volcano Model

Smithsonian Micro Volcano
Create-Your-Own Volcano Kit by Lakeshore

4M Volcano Making Kit 

NSI Smithsonian Giant Volcano Kit

Shylling Volcano Kit
I simply use vinegar, a couple drops of orange food coloring and some baking soda to create the demonstration.  In order to give the children a hands-on experience in erupting their own volcano it would be best to choose something made of plaster or plastic.  The plastic volcano kits are the easiest to clean independently.  I actually love this volcano for the on the shelf independent work because of its small size and easy clean up.  When it is set up there is just enough baking soda and colored vinegar for one eruption.  Once finished, including the child has cleaned it up for the next person, they can put it on the replenish shelf for the assistant to add more colored vinegar and baking soda.

I add to a second basket these photo cards to give children a chance to see great pictures of lots of different kinds of volcanoes.  This is a great primer for the elementary grades where they will learn about the types of volcanoes.

Volcano Photo Cards

After the children have had plenty of experience erupting the volcano it is a great time to introduce the Volcano Nomenclature Cards.  Sometimes you will have someone who knows a lot about volcanoes in your group and other times you might not.  The ones who know so much can really enrich the conversation.  This is the Early Childhood set of nomenclature cards and the blackline master to go along with it.  Older children should ALWAYS write the words independently by looking at the booklet while the littlest ones could trace the words.  I make my control booklet from this blackline set as well.  I trace over the letters with a thin black Sharpie marker so that children could place their paper over the booklet and trace the letters if they wanted to.  I want my letters to look nice so the children learn the correct formation.

Early Childhood Volcano Nomenclature Cards

Early Childhood Volcano Blackline Masters

There are so many great books about volcanoes that are very appropriate for the Early Childhood classroom.  Here are a short list of these books but you can find many, many more:

This Magic Tree House book is a great one for your advanced readers

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Parts of the Human Body

I was emailed by a reader that they had seen the parts of the body cards but it wasn't available online. I have so very many things I haven't uploaded yet that I can't remember which ones I do or do not have online.  I thank her for asking for them.

Here they are:
Parts of the Human Body Nomenclature Cards
This is the companion Blackline Master for making the booklets:

Parts of the Human Body Blackline Master

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Life of Change

Many of you who are regular visitors to this page are aware that my family's life has become about change.  Our son, Andon, is doing well in his fight against leukemia and we hope he will continue to do well throughout his life.  He has just over a year left in maintenance - a portion of treatment that requires roughly 130 chemo pills monthly, a monthly visit to the cancer clinic for intrathecal treatment and often a back poke with more treatment.  His feet are damaged by the Vincristine he takes and require special boots, which he hates to wear, his executive functioning is affected by the 6-mp, and his bones are affected by the high doses of Prednisone he takes monthly.  After all this he is an INCREDIBLY cheerful and kind child - growing into such a wonderful young man.  He will be 14 before we are done with treatment, and there have been enough scares along the way that the cancer was back and we would be back in the thick of it once more.  There have been way too many of our friends from the clinic and ICS that have relapsed and are fighting again and some who have, sorrowfully, left us.  Our life is a life of change, and it will never be one of stillness ever again.  I am grateful to have him for as long as I am able.  It is worth every moment.

After 9 months of sabbatical I returned to my Montessori classroom and was so different.  Somehow serving of Andon changed me.  I had a calmness I didn't before, and I spent the summer in a beautiful classroom with a wonderful assistant.  When it was time for Andon to return to school I became so fearful of him going into a germ filled school with a depressed immune system and being so far away.  I prayed for some way to take care of this great worry.

I was presented with the opportunity to move all of us (4 of my children and myself) to a new school that had a Montessori Early Childhood classroom as well a couple of Early Elementary classrooms.  The only catch was there was no position for Early Childhood open, only Early Elementary.  I took a leap of faith and moved into Early Elementary for the 2015 - 2016 school year.  I sometimes felt out of my depth, and overwhelmed with all the demands on me as a mother, wife, guide, trainer, and person.  I turned to the wisest people I knew for advise and help and they did help me.  Finally in February 2016 Laurie Stockton Moreno (she teaches at Brookview Montessori School in Benton Harbor, Michigan as well as instructs at Westminster College of Montessori, Utah) visited my classroom for a week and changed everything for me.  I chose to stay there and have fallen in love with Early Elementary and cherish my time with these beautiful souls.  My brain feels about 10 times larger - as well as my heart.  I used to say I didn't want to teach any older than 6 because of the change in the child, but I have such a great blessing to walk with the children through these changes and the explosion in to exploration that happens in these years.  The complexity of their young lives leaves me breathless and overwhelmed at times, as well as the heroic way in which they face their challenges and overcome what they can.  Their hearts are so good, and they strive to do so much good for each other and the larger world.  I miss the Early Childhood classroom.  I don't think I could choose a favorite - ever.  I see that working in the Elementary Classroom has solidified my understanding of the importance of the Early Childhood Classroom.

I do not know what the future holds for me and my family, but I strive and pray to have the courage to face it and take on whatever lies ahead of me.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Montessori Theory Part III - The Formative Years

The Formative Years

"L" is a happy and active four year old who happens to be my nephew.  He is highly articulate and precise in his use of language.  He is the middle child of three boys and loves to imitate his older brother who is six.  He usually gets along fairly well with his younger brother until he tries to take whatever he might be working on; then he feels upset.  He will tell him to leave his things alone and stands firm without yelling or hurting until the younger one relents.  His parents are very loving and concerned for his development and well-being.  They ask good questions and study good books about how to aid his development.  They are particularly kind, calm and set appropriate boundaries consistently.  He is always busy doing something and especially loves to spend his time outdoors where he loves to pick the vegetables and dig in the dirt.  We were a little concerned about his vocabulary development for a while when at two years he wasn’t really speaking much, but one day he burst out with words and quickly caught up with his peers.  Some of my favorite times are when "L" comes to visit.  He always asks if I have some works he can do.  He knows just where to find the rugs and gets busy.  He will work until he has had his fill and is ready to move on.  He has a rich social life with his large extended family and friends and plenty of enticing and interesting modes for development.According to UNICEF early childhood is a critical time for emotional, cognitive, social, and physical development in children like Lincoln.  During this time the building blocks of lifelong function are formed as child’s developing brain is highly absorbent and flexible to change as trillions of interconnected neurons are established through the interaction of character traits, environment and experiences with that environment and others.  Nature has set the path for childhood development which requires a stimulating environment, adequate nutrients and social interaction with attentive and adequately informed caregivers.1

The Psychic Life of the Child

It wasn’t too long before Maria Montessori’s entrance onto the scene of medicine that a correct understanding of the development of the embryo took place.  It used to be thought that inside the egg was a minute form of the baby we see born.  This was because the embryo develops in secret; hidden away from the eyes of the world.  Montessori said that the growth of the embryo is a miracle of creation and so wonderful because it is carried out in secret and alone… This marvel of creation, however, has been carefully hidden.2Montessori also spoke of a development that was just as important in the life of the human as physical development.  She spoke of the psychic development.  In her research she said that “just as every fertilized cell contains within itself the plan of the whole organism, so the body of a newborn creature, no matter to what species it may belong, has within itself psychic instincts which will enable it to adjust itself to its surroundings.  This is true of every living being, even the humblest insect… and just as the lower animals, so the newly born child has latent psychic drives characteristic of its species.  It would be absurd to think that man alone, so superior to all other creatures in the grandeur of his psychic life, would be the only one to lack a plan of psychic development.  Unlike the instincts of brute animals, which may be seen immediately in their way of acting, a child’s spirit can be so deeply hidden that it is not immediately apparent.” 3It is this psychic life that helps humankind move from infant to adult. Not an adult that is the same as any other, but one with a particular individuality and personality.  There is a hidden pattern of development which must be revealed by the child.

The Absorbent Mind

When the child is born it seems that he begins with absolutely nothing; a blank slate. How then does this tiny thing go from nothing to a babbling baby and then to a confident reader?  From the moment he is born he begins taking in stimulus from his surroundings and it is filed away for later use.  The child has what is termed an absorbent mind.  “He wills that which does not yet exist.”4Because the child’s mind is not yet formed, he must learn in a different way form the adult.  The adult has a knowledge of his environment on which to build, but the child must begin with nothing.  It is the Absorbent Mind that accomplishes this seemingly impossible task.  It permits an unconscious absorption of the environment by means of a special pre-conscious state of mind.  Through this process, the child incorporates knowledge directly into his psychic life.  “Impressions do not merely enter his mind, they form it, they incarnate themselves in him.”  An unconscious activity thus prepares the mind.  It is “succeeded by a conscious process which slowly awakens and takes from the unconscious what it can offer.”  The child constructs his mind in this way until, little by little, he has established memory, the power to understand, and the ability to reason. 5When a child is young he doesn’t just learn how to play the piano or water the plants, whatever he experiences with his world becomes a part of his person.  This means that every good thing is absorbed as well as every bad thing.  Therefore, “a struggle, fright or other obstacles, may produce effects that remain for the rest of life, since the reactions to those obstacles are absorbed like everything else in development…In this epoch therefore we have not only a development of the character, but also a development of certain deviated psychic characteristics which children will manifest as they grow older…So also it is with any defects and obstacles acquired now; they remain, and grow; and so many defects that adult people present are attributed to this distant epoch of their life.” 6Some years ago I had a little girl in my class.  The place where I worked had bathrooms lights that turned off automatically with a sensor.  Everyone shared the same bathrooms in the hallway and they had heavy doors.  One day she accidentally went into the boy’s bathroom and was so still that the light turned off.  She was a tiny girl and froze with fear.  She cried and cried, but they couldn’t hear her behind the door.  I went looking for her after it seemed like she was taking too long to get back.  Since she was in the boy’s bathroom it took me longer to find her.  She was a wretched little thing in that bathroom stall and a changed person.  It was so devastating to me to see her brightness change to fear.  She was afraid of the garbage truck coming while we were outside.  She jumped at noises.  She was afraid of the wind.  I worked as much as I could with her to help, and her issues lessened.  However, in the two years following it was apparent that she had been affected long-term.  I decided right then that I would never install automatic lights, if a child could be so affected it would never be worth it.

The Sensitive Periods

Maria Montessori felt that of all her contributions to early childhood studies, her discovery of the Sensitive Periods was the most import.  During her life she called for the greater in-depth study of the importance of these years.7  There is now much more research that supports these critical periods of learning.  There are several well-known Sensitive Periods spoken on news programs and in newspaper articles, such as the acquisition of language.  Sensitive Periods are critical times of learning when the child is attracted to certain activities in order for specific developments to occur.  These can be parallel stages of development.  Each period has its unique characteristics that require a specific kind of environment and teaching.These periods of sensitivity in the young child are detailed by the Montessori Institute Northwest as follows:

  • Sensitive Period for Order (birth through age 4 1/2)- Guides the formation of mental structures necessary for the emergence of human intelligence; and organizes the child’s experience to provide the foundation for all aspects of the child’s adaptation to his time and place
  • Sensitive Period for the Coordination of Movement (birth through age 4 1/2 -5) - Guides the formation of physical movement of the body and the hand, movement which is directed purposefully by the Mind (specifically, by the mental power know as the Will)
  • Sensitive Period for Development and Refinement of Sensory Perception (birth through age 4 1/2) - Guide continual development and refinement of perception through the five senses (touch, smell, taste, hearing, and vision or sight) leading to: first, the classification of sensory impressions; and, second, the formation of abstractions for sensory experience (memory)
  • Sensitive Period for Language (birth through age 6) - Guides the formation of the specific human language (or languages) used for spoken communication in the child’s environment 8

The importance of the child remaining free to follow the pull of interest during this time is so important that Montessori stated, “If the child is prevented from following the interest of any given Sensitive Period, the opportunity for a natural conquest is lost forever.  He loses his special sensitivity and desire in this area, with a disturbing effect on his psychic development and maturity.  Therefore, the opportunity for development in his Sensitive Periods must not be left to chance.  As soon as one appears, the child must be assisted.” 9  It follows that it is necessary for the child to have assistance from adults who are educated in the specific needs of that Sensitive Period, who know how to follow the child, when to intervene, and more importantly when to remove themselves.When a child is in a sensitive period for any particular thing he can learn to make adjustment and new acquisitions with ease.  He does not tire from his efforts, but his enthusiasm is increased.  One characteristic of the child’s environment becomes the focus to the exclusion of others.  They appear in the individual as ‘an intense interest for repeating certain actions at length, for no obvious reason, until – because of this repetition – a fresh function suddenly appears with explosive force.” 10By the time my fourth child," B", was little I was learning as much as I could about Montessori philosophy.  When he was three my friend gave our school room a gift of some brightly colored nesting boxes with lids from IKEA.  I gave him a lesson on how to stack them like a tower and left him to it.  I had never experienced such a tiny thing working for hours and hours on the same work.  He explored EVERY possible combination with incredible speed, and then repeated this work again and again and again.  It felt almost pathological, watching this happen for the first time, and it was only my promise to adhere to the rules of not disturbing his work that kept me from stepping in and stopping him.  Eventually that feeling subsided and longer I watched, the more awed I became at what was taking place.  He worked relentlessly through lunch and playtime without noticing anything going on around him.  He became the work entirely.  Finally he was done and he put it away happy and ready for the next thing.  The work didn’t tire him out; on the contrary, it filled him with happiness and a readiness to find something new to work on.

The Role of the Adult

When my oldest daughter, "S", was two years old I was pregnant with my second child.  I had not yet been introduced to Montessori principles.  During that summer we went on a short trip every day to the school for the summer lunch program.  The first day she let me push her in the stroller on the way there, but would have nothing to do with it on the way back.  She wanted to walk and explore, especially in the gutter.  It was June and beginning to be uncomfortably hot for me.  We were going to make this trip five days a week for the rest of the summer and I was certain that I could not handle the same thing happening on every trip.  I was thinking forward to July and August and how my pregnant body would be wanting to die.  I didn’t understand the importance of her walking and, therefore, didn’t take her into account.  The next day I said that we were going to race from pole to pole all the way home.  She mostly obliged but was never very happy about it. As soon as we stopped at the next pole she was ready to explore again and I was ready to move on.  When that proved to be too troublesome for me I took to driving her in the car.  I find it interesting that I have always looked back at that summer with discomfort, even in the years before I knew that I should follow the child.  I have gone back to that experience multiple times and thought of what I might have done to accommodate both her and me. It felt wrong even then, but I didn’t understand why.Montessori’s words about the relationship between the adult and child are straightforward and accusatory.  She lays at our charge that we are in a constant conflict with them because we have not understood them, that we cannot see the child as he is, and that from the moment the child enters our lives we are on our guard against it.  She further states that, “In their dealings with children adults do not become egotistic but egocentric.  They look upon everything pertaining to a child’s soul from their own point of view”. 11What children really need are caregivers who study the normalized development of the child.  Caregivers who are willing to put their convenience and comfort on hold for a while to follow the child in her developmental needs.  Because the world that the child enters now is so artificial in comparison to more natural world of the past we must make the necessary steps to fulfill the needs of the child, whether this be in homes or schools.In SummaryPersonally I feel such gratitude for what I now know about the secret life of the child.  I have always ascribed to the idea of a light that guides a child, but until I spent many years in personal research I could never have imagined that this light could be found in the minute details of the everyday. Children are not just floundering about.  There is a pattern for development and they hold the reigns.  I get to be part of it, I get to help them and provide a safe and stimulating place to do this work of growing and creating themselves.  I have the coolest job!
  1. The Secret of Childhood Maria Montessori (1996) New York, Ballentine Books p. 18
  1. Ibid pp. 19 - 20
  1. Ibid p. 35
  1. Ibid p. 36
  1. The Absorbent Mind  Maria Montessori (1949), Adyar, Madras, India: The Theosophical Publishing House p. 187
  1. Montessori A Modern Approach Paula Polk Lillard (1972) p. 36
  1. Montessori A Modern Approach p. 32 - 33
  1. Ibid 31
  1. The Secret of Childhood p. 15

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Montessori Theory Part II - The Prepared Environment

The Prepared Environment

Most children do not have the luxury of entering a world prepared to meet them with caregivers prepared to fulfill their needs.  Most children enter an artificially altered world with adults who do not actually understand what their needs really are.  A newborn’s needs are more readily understood than a child of one year or eighteen months.  Once a child is mobile we become guarded against what she might do to all the things around her.  We are weary of her hands that grab, her feet that go in unwanted directions and the mouth where everything enters that she comes across; from dirt to precious houseplants and pets.  We say that we must baby-proof a house for this child, but in reality we want to change as little as possible and then not deal with the frustration that comes with not really preparing for the child in our lives.  Because they are weaker, less able to tell us what they want, and smaller we choose for our wants trump their needs – if we know what those are at all.
Once the child moves out of the unconscious level of living and into the realm of ordering her subconscious for conscious living, the adults in her life can become more baffled about the support that she needs for proper and normalized development.  Anxious parents are easily guided this way and that as they try to do the right thing; frequently entirely missing the mark.  Personal difficulties and issues stemming back to their own childhoods can make it even more difficult to see their child for who they are and what they are trying to accomplish.  
If we look at the difference between a typical American home environment and a Montessori Early Childhood classroom we will see several stark contrasts.  First, the home environment is usually outfitted for the comfort of the adults.  Frequently there are a limited number of rooms that are geared toward the child.  Take the kitchen for example, the counters are high and out of reach for the child to use.  The tables and appliances are proportioned to the adults.  Even the chairs in most kitchen/dining areas are one size, the fully grown adult.  The milk in the refrigerator is large and heavy.  The young child has great difficulty in pouring from it without spilling.  If we let them try, and they do spill, they are often scolded.  The playroom of the typical American home is filled with many things to occupy the time of the child, but that do not necessarily fulfill the developmental  needs they have.
In contrast, the Early Childhood Montessori environment is filled with natural sunlight, neutral colors and beautiful surroundings.  There so much to draw they eye and interest.  The walls are adorned with a few lovely paintings at the eye level of the child, the low shelves are adorned with flowers that the children arrange themselves.  This classroom is specifically made to the child’s measure with low sinks and tables and they, the children, are the central focus here.  There is no teacher’s desk, you might not even readily be able to find her since she is probably on the floor with one or a few of the children. 

The Tenets of a Prepared Environment
There are six basic tangible and intangible tenets of the prepared Montessori environment.  They include freedom, structure and order, reality and nature, beauty and atmosphere, the Montessori materials, and the development of community life.  I also include the prepared teacher as one of these tenants, making in actuality seven.  Each of these components is incredibly important to the development of the child.  With even one element missing the whole child struggles in his education.  There can be many dropped stitches that continue to affect him throughout his life.1
Four year old Skyler enters the classroom and says goodbye to his mother.  He immediately heads straight for the peace corner.  He takes the thumb piano off the peace shelf and sits to play it quietly.  After about five minutes he puts it away and retrieves the water tube with the tiny beads and shaped sequins.  He lays down sideways on the pillows and watches the beads float back and forth.  He likes and needs his alone time in the morning and tells May, who is coloring in a chair near the peace corner, that he doesn’t want to talk to her yet.  His life at home can be somewhat disorganized with changes between parent’s homes and styles.  After about fifteen minutes he puts things away and heads across to the other side of the classroom.  He walks the line and then lays out a rug, gets the pink tower and broad stairs, and proceeds to work with them for about twenty or twenty five minutes.  This routine has been repeated by Skyler every school day since the beginning of June.  Once he puts away the tower and stairs he will choose any number of things.  Today he asked if we could use the ending sound mat together.  The beginning of his day is always the same.  He needs to take time in the peace corner and he needs to use the tower and stairs every day.  If someone else gets there first he will wait in a watching chair until he sees that it is free to use.  He chooses to work with friends and alone.  He stops to chat with other children from time to time.  He prepares his own snack; sometimes early in the work-cycle, sometimes much later.  He is progressing nicely through the language and math works of his own volition.  He is highly interested by what his older friends are doing and wants to do them as well.  He particularly likes to sweep under the shelves with the broom to look for any missing pieces of classroom works that might have rolled under there.  He is really beginning to come into his own at school, and makes friends easily.  Several new children have started coming in our classroom and he is enjoying the chance to show them how to do things.  He is confident and happy; a considerable change from the scared, boogery, and undirected little one he was when he first started in the fall.
We do not know who a child is when they come into our lives and classrooms.  They must reveal themselves to us.  Freedom in the Montessori classroom is of the utmost importance to this revelation.  I have worked in both traditional and Montessori environments.  The most apparent difference in a child’s day is the freedom they have in its construction.  Instead of a teacher who chooses what the entire group of children must be doing, and where they must be at any given time, the child has the power, within proper boundaries, to make those choices.  There are guidelines and a schedule, but even those have plenty of wiggle room to accommodate for the ebb and flow of any particular day.  If, at the normal time for cleanup, a child is not ready to put away their work they may scoot out of the line area – if needed –   and continue.  There have been plenty of times in the classrooms where I have been a lead guide when a child has worked straight through outside breaks and even, a few times, lunch before being finished.  No one is required to have a snack and no one is required to go to the garden, movement, or the library.  This freedom develops an incredibly important inner discipline and drive.  The responsibility of the guide is to make the materials in the classroom speak to the child, and to discover the ways in which she will control the environment and not the child.  
“It is necessary for the teacher to guide the child without letting him feel her presence too much, so that she may be always ready to supply the desired help, but may never be the obstacle between the child and his experience.”2
Reality and Nature
Near the beginning of the school year we were outside in the yard area when a little garter snake came to visit.  Several of the children were spooked by this little creature and started screaming and running around.  I have a bit of trouble with snakes myself because of being bitten when I was young, but I knew that this was a rare opportunity in most of these children’s lives to learn to have respect for all life.  Most of them had never seen a snake up close, in real life - AND we just happened to be studying reptiles.  As children came over to look at the snake, who was doing its best to hide, we chatted about how big we were to this snake and how scared it must be.  The children became quieter and more fascinated.  They understood what it felt like to be small and scared sometimes by the big people in their lives.  I modeled using a quiet tone around the snake so as not to scare it.  Pretty soon more and more children came to observe, with the child who first spotted the creature telling everyone to be careful not to hurt the snake or scream because it was really scared.  I had 17 children looking and speaking in hushed tones as they asked questions about the snake.  Allen was particularly scared of the snake and would dash over to take a peek, would grab my hand, and then dart back up to the top of the hill.  As we continued our quiet discussion he kept coming over for longer periods.  The snake moved and he stayed still, content to hold my hand.  We eventually agreed that we should let the snake go and hide, and went back in the school to watch what he would do.  He slithered away while the children all talked about how exciting it all was.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the real thing is priceless.  The young child learns best by their senses.  The Montessori environment and guide, inside and out, take this precious knowledge into account in every bit of planned, and unplanned opportunities that present themselves.  Because of the freedom to adjust the curriculum for the day, a visit from a turtle in the gardens (which we have also had) or the robins outside actively building their nests above the fire bell are not an interference; they are the choice experiences the children are naturally drawn to.  We can then utilize this practical knowledge to create interest in all sorts of areas of the curriculum now and later.  After our visit from the snake, Gretta (the girl who first spotted it) wrote a story about it for writer’s workshop, and the reptile nomenclature cards and booklets became a more interesting work on the shelf.  Some of the children asked to look at pictures from the internet at snake scales and drew freeform pictures of snakes with many scales.  The addition snake game was remembered by some of the children who had used it previously who took it out to practice with it together.  This experience was also expressed sensorially when some of the children created a rainbow snake with the third box of colors, and another created snakes from the knobless cylinders.  Just last Friday (nearly 9 months later) I was asked if we could go out and look for “garden” snakes again by May.  I could never artificially create something as valuable as the snake did just by being itself, and our class valuing the chance to observe it and let it go on its way.  We have had visitors with snakes and reptiles, and the children have loved them so well, but finding that little snake out in his natural home has remained in their consciousness this whole year.  They still talk about it with each other sometimes.
Careful planning of the indoor and outdoor environments should be made in order to support the child’s experience with real, appropriately proportioned things, and with nature.  No pretend sink or refrigerator could ever be as exciting to a child as a real one with real things to use them with.  When I first witnessed a lesson on a real tea party my heart sang at how beautiful it was to give this chance for loving grace and manners to a child.  Children don't just want to play pretend, they really want the chance to do what they see their parents and other adults in their lives doing.  They would much rather really polish shoes and mirrors, sweep and mop the floor, wash cloths and sew a straight line than to pretend to do these things.  The indoor classroom is extended to the outdoors by carefully planning which activities can be done outdoors and by the installation of components that will engender the exploration of the natural world along with large motor development.  Trails, trees, flowers, bushes, quiet spaces, and gardens are complimented by playgrounds and works that encourage the care of the environment and large motor development such as playgrounds.
Structure and Order
“If there is one feature more than another which should characterize the prepared environment it is order.  Order should pervade the Montessori classroom down to the smallest detail, being present wholly and completely in each part, as a spirit is present in very part of the body which it informs.  This order expresses itself in many different ways, and on different mental levels, according to the degree of development of the children who are helped by it.”3
A child is not free to do whatever he pleases.  He may not destroy or misuse materials, hurt others, or misuse the environment.  There are rules of grace and courtesy that we all follow in the classroom, and they are the benchmark for behavior.  The more we practice and reinforce how to respect another’s space, the classroom, and the works, the more in tune and connected all the children become with our environment.  In this way we become a community caring for our special “house”.
As a lead Montessori guide, I spend a great deal of time planning for our time in the classroom.  I usually begin plans for a school year in about February.  I have had enough time during the current year to know the things I didn’t spend quite enough time on this year and start researching how to improve for the following one.  Planning out the year is just a sketch of mostly cultural lessons and focuses for each month.  There are the weekly and daily plans and then the individual lesson presentation with follow through tracking and planning.  There is so much planning and preparing in a Montessori classroom.  I visit my local thrift shops at least a couple of times a month to look for all kinds of things from creamers that get broken now and then, to knick-knacks from faraway countries, books, science and art materials, and in short anything that will fit into our curriculum.  My co-teacher and I spend some of our planning time reviewing which things in our classroom are not getting used anymore and deciding what will inspire interest and activity based on observations of the children and their individual stages of development.  I might have made an observation that one child was using a clothes pinning work for stacking instead and my co-teacher may have seen her trying to balance on the edge of the playground and therefore bring out a balancing and stacking work for her; while at the same time increasing the interest in the water works by introducing colored water they can make themselves.  I might spend an entire weekend pondering a behavior that a child is displaying and trying to work out what might help him; what might I be missing?  I re-read portions of books and articles that are particular to a question about myself and my approach to the classroom or children that might need an adjustment.  I prepare and make many, many materials while focusing on what I believe, from some experience, will make the children go crazy with delight and therefore entice their to work and focus.
“It is one of the main duties of the directress to maintain this order in the environment; and be ever on the watch lest it be impaired in the smallest degree.  Every piece of the materials - down to the smallest cube in the pink tower, the points of the pencils, the accurate folding of the towels, the exact position of the materials in the cupboards, the correct tally of the words in the grammar boxes, the right number and order of the decimal system number cards, the soap in the soap dish, the shoe polish in the cleaning outfit - everything must be always and absolutely in its right place.”HL&W 271

The Montessori Materials 
The Montessori materials are beautiful and appealing.  The classroom is equipped with low shelves that the child can easily access and retrieve the work they love so well.  They are sorted into the following areas of the curriculum:
Practical Life -  The child is in contact with his world, but he needs assistance with how to live in it.  Most adults are confused or weary about how much their child knows and how to give them independence without making too much inconvenience or mess of their home  The practical life exercises are designed to assist the child with this living by isolating a specific practical skill and putting it into the hands of the child to practice and perfect.  Pouring, spooning, polishing, scrubbing, weaving, sewing, sweeping, dressing, folding, wrapping, washing; all of these and more give the child independence.  These exercises are easily extended into the daily function of the classroom and outdoor environment.  Each of these activities has a practical purpose and develops in the child a love of his environment and fosters care for his space while at school and extending to home. Preparing the tables for lunch and serving your friends, washing the windows of the classroom, sweeping under the shelves to keep the classroom clean, dusting the works and shelves to maintain a lovely atmosphere, cleaning plant leaves and arranging flowers for the shelves, gardening and sweeping walks gives purpose and independence to the child.
Sensorial -  The young child makes sense of the world through his senses.  The Sensorial area isolates one area of a sense to develop and educate it.  These very didactic materials leave a sensorial impression on the mind of the child that he can draw on later.  These exercises include the visual, auditory, thermic, gustatory, olfactory, baric, tactile and stereognostic senses.
Language - The language area trains the child to use the hand in preparation for writing and reading first and then moves on in a step by step process to teach competence in writing and reading skills.  The child writes words with the moveable alphabet before he can read them and then begins to learn how to read.  Again each difficulty is isolated in order for the child to focus on one thing and master it before moving on.
Mathematics - The Montessori math materials are by far the showiest of all areas in the classroom.  They are beautiful and attractive.  When I began reading lessons and practicing them in order to teach my own children, suddenly I understood math in a way I had never before.  It is the most frequent comment I hear from assistants and leads in the classroom.  They really wish they had learned this way.  Math is such an abstract concept in the traditional school but in the Montessori early childhood classroom they are hands-on physical representations of abstract ideas that become part of the child.  They can again, in later life, draw on these physical experiences with the works as their understanding of difficult concepts.  At a young age children are understanding the concepts of large numbers, fractions, time, addition, multiplication, subtraction and division.
Most schools also include science, geography, history and art in the same hands-on way that is so compelling and brain developing as the other areas.
Beauty and Atmosphere
Every day I strive to arrive at school at least an hour before the day is scheduled to begin.  At the end of each work cycle our class cleans and straightens pretty well and we of course, as guides, clean and prepare the room, but after we leave there is aftercare in our room.  Things might not be as well in order as they could be and I want to do everything I can to make certain they are ready to go for the coming day.  Are the metal inset papers stocked?  Do the watercolors need to be replaced?  What about the bathroom (one of the aftercare children tends to pee behind the toilet) and under the shelves?  Are the cloths and dusters for cleaning ready to go?  Are the trays clear of sand from the sifting work the aftercare children have a difficult time not touching?  Over several years of working with young children I have come to honor and appreciate the difference that a clean and prepared environment makes in their lives at school.  I may have some small influence on the home lives of some of the students in our classroom, but certainly not any control.  I do, however, have control and stewardship of the environment that they step into, and an expanding knowledge in how to foster our little community.
“It goes without saying that we should make this prepared environment as beautiful as possible.  ‘The best for the smallest’ was always Dr. Montessori’s motto.  A well-equipped Montessori classroom is indeed a beautiful sight, with its many low windows adorned with bright curtains, its gaily painted tables and cupboards decorated with vases of flowers.  Even the materials themselves are beautiful.”4
The beauty and atmosphere of the Montessori environment is created from more than just materials.  There are curtains in the windows, the shelves are made of wood, if possible.   There are plants dotting the shelves that the children care for.  The children take pride and care of the classroom and adorn it with lovely flowers that they cut and place themselves.  The peace corner or area is a quiet and beautiful space where a child can go to escape or calm down.  There is also a peace table where the children work out their differences.  This adds to the peaceful and inclusive attitude in the classroom.
The Development of Community Life
At the end of our worktime today I gave the music box to Charles to carry around the room.  He walked by friends without announcing the end of worktime.  The music box does that job with no words.  Many of the children cleaned up their work and started helping others who were still putting things away.  Some children still wanted to work and they left them alone.  We have spent a few weeks working up to a great cleaning of the classroom.  Five or six children get out the little finger dusters and dust works and shelves, others want the full hand duster or the wand dusters.  Other children use the brooms and the small dustpans to sweep under shelves and floors.  A couple of children take out the crooked rugs and make them straight, while others wash the tables and the sink.  My assistant helps a couple of children straighten and edge works, and I help a couple of others to put some of the practical life exercises back in order and fix some of the aprons.  After the tables have been washed we set the napkins and name tags at the tables to get ready for lunch and then ring the bell to sit for the circle.  This is a real community effort, but there is no jobs list.  No one is assigned any jobs before hand, but everyone keeps busy, or is invited to help one of us.  During our afternoon circle, arnold wanted to read a book that he had written to the class.  He sat in the author’s chair and counted down the five scoots toward the middle of the circle.  Once his story was finished the others in the classroom clapped for his success in writing and he again counted the five scoots back to their spots on the line.  When that was finished it was time for the silence.  They children encouraged a couple of the younger children to be extra quiet today for the silence.  They said that they really wanted to see if they could be silent for three minutes today.  One of the boys said he didn’t feel like he could be quiet today and slipped into the neighboring room.  It was very thoughtful of him to not want to disturb or ruin everyone else’s silence today.
The real story of community life exists in the very day to day activities of the classroom.  With a few guided lessons on the respect and love we show to others children take care of each other when they are not feeling well, are sad, or afraid.  Because of proper training, children need much less of our interference in their small disputes everyday.  They really love the peace rose talks and frequently take care of issues without any adults being aware that there was ever a problem.  They take turns to share their feelings and declare friends when finished.  Once in a while they will ask for a mediator to help with a big problem.  Sometimes that is a guide and sometimes it is another student.  I have watched children spend a great deal of time making lovely pictures and notes only to give them all away to their friends.  The way they care for the classroom is a show of love for the classroom and develops their sense of community.  
The Prepared Teacher
If there is one incredibly valuable thing I have learned in the years leading up to and since the beginning of my formal training is this: You can have a beautifully crafted and organized room with the most expensive materials from the best companies, and you can have an incredible facility with the best intentions, but place an untrained and unprepared teacher in that space and the children will be the ones to lose out.  Montessori philosophy and methodology, not to mention the use of the materials, takes a long, long time to understand and perfect.  It is a beautiful thing to watch the prepared teacher at work.  Her classroom is calm and orderly, the children are happy and busy with good things, the works are treated with respect, and she is warm and understanding.  The directress of a Montessori classroom must have the ability to focus in on the one she is working with right now, while her antennae are out with a pulse on the rest of the children at the same time.  She must learn through practice when to intervene and when to stand back and observe.  She thinks and thinks about what a child is doing and what it may mean and then observes more to try to determine how to help that child.  Her real work is to remove the false notions, and shackles of of her own prejudices in order to see the child for who they really are.  She must remove pride from herself continually.  She is overjoyed when her necessity in the classroom shrinks; when the children are acting as if she is not there.
“In addition to maintaining as close a contact as possible with the children’s parents and family life, the Montessori teacher has an important role to play as an interpreter of Montessori aims to the community at large.  There is a demand to know more about Montessori education on the part of parents and teacher, and Montessori teacher must be capable and willing to meet their requests for lectures, demonstrations, and visits.  They do this as a part of their commitment to the child and his education, a commitment that extends beyond their own classroom.”5
In Summary
I am aware of how far I have to expand in the knowledge of my craft.  I am excited about the perfecting of my work as a guide and preparer of the classroom.  People always say that they can tell how much I love my work, and it is so very true.  At first it was difficult to hear where I was wrong or taking missteps, but now I really watch and listen to try to pick up on the little things I can change.  It wasn't until I visited and observed one of the classrooms at a beautiful facility last spring that I saw enough of a good cleanup routine demonstrated that I could understand the process well enough to put it into practice with such great success in our classroom.  When I read, study, ponder and journal about the classroom and how it works, I learn with leaps and bounds.  I don’t just want a good classroom and I am not interested in being just a good teacher.  I have this quote that is carved in stone on my bookcase that I strive to live my life by: Every job is a self-portrait of the person who did it - Autograph your work with excellence.  This phrase calls me to humility.  If I am to be an excellent teacher, and provide and excellent environment, I must be absolutely open to correction and change.  It has only been since I have opened by heart and mind to change that things have begun to improve for myself, and my family in all areas of life.  I get a great deal of satisfaction from what I do; from creation to implementation to revelation.  There is so much room for improvement, and I feel like every year brings greater ability to prepare the correct environment.  

1 - Montessori A Modern Approach Paula Polk Lillard (1972) Random House, NY p.51
2 - Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook Maria Montessori (2013) p.55
3 - Maria Montessori Her Life and Work E.M. Standing (1957) p. 270
4 - Ibid p. 268

5 - Montessori A Modern Approach p. 86