Wheaton Montessori News
From Jennifer Rogers, Primary Teacher at Wheaton Montessori School
More than 100 years ago, Maria Montessori filled her first experimental classroom with children who were impoverished and neglected. She gave them permission to move and talk, offered a limited selection of materials to occupy their minds and hands, and left them to the care of an untrained teacher. It was a dubious arrangement, tolerable only because the parents of these first students were desperate. Prior to Maria Montessori and her bold new ideas, when parents left for work each day, their children ran unsupervised through the streets of Rome.
Observations of the children in the first and every subsequent Montessori classroom altered our understanding of human potential. Children who had been belligerent and destructive could concentrate. Children who had been sullen and angry found joy in purposeful work. Children whose parents were uneducated and illiterate read fluently at the age of six. The transformations were remarkable, and remain as astonishing today as they were in the streets of twentieth century Rome.
In The Absorbent Mind Maria Montessori quotes the Lebanese philosopher-poet Kahlil Gibran: “Work is love made visible.” It’s an artful arrangement of words, a sentence quoted at the conclusion of a pivotal chapter in The Absorbent Mind because it comes closer than any other to describing observations of children in Montessori classrooms.
The text of The Absorbent Mind is a translation of lectures Montessori gave to students in her first training course. She wanted that first audience of aspiring teachers, and all of us who have followed in their footsteps, to establish conditions in our classrooms that would allow children to work to their soul’s satisfaction, so that their love might be “made visible.”
For Montessori guides in every culture, our daily challenge is to observe with intelligence, with a clear vision of each child’s potential and a tireless dedication to the preparation of the environment. We serve children from the periphery, through continual re-creation of an environment that challenges, inspires, and affirms optimum human growth. Our job is to ensure that everything a child needs to learn is within his reach, accessible to his mind and his hand, alluring and attractive even when he is distracted or discouraged.
In her first environments for children, Montessori observed that the activities of a very young child were varied and repetitive and often inefficient, but that they were also vivid enactments of that child’s love for herself and her world. Montessori believed that the energy generated by the children’s love was the only force strong enough to bring peace into her war-torn, broken world.
When a child enters a Montessori classroom at the start of the day, he knows he may converse, move about his environment, and select his work. He can see that the tables and chairs are his size, as are the aprons, pitchers, brooms, and scissors. He begins each day with the satisfying awareness that he will be able to work at his own pace, without interruption, without asking for help. He can repeat the task he has chosen as often as he likes, until he is fatigued or distracted, or until it is evident that his love has been “made visible.”
Oddly enough, children who are articulate and hugely successful in their work rarely communicate the details of their day — what they did, or what they learned. When asked, young Montessori children typically report they did “nothing” at school, or that they “played.” Their sense of time is so immediate, their perspective so limited, they are not yet able to name the experiences that absorbed their energy and attention.
Observation is, for parents and teachers, the most reliable method of gathering information. An example: Six-year-old Anna paused to watch some of her younger peers enjoy their first lesson with Golden Beads. Anna has a brilliant mathematical mind. She has memorized many basic math facts, and is beginning to complete abstract computations in her head. She remembers all the lessons with Golden Beads with full comprehension and joy. Though she watches her peers’ lesson silently, she is smiling.
“I love Golden Beads,” she says. “I remember this lesson, and all the other lessons. I really do.” She sat down beside her teacher, eager to re-visit her memories. “I think I will stay with you, because I think I could help be a good teacher for this work. I’m sure I can be.”
Anna smiled again. “You are going to love the Golden Beads,” she said to the other children. “It is so much fun. So. Much. Fun.” For Anna, the Golden Beads have become a sensorial reminder of her great love of mathematics, her ease in understanding, and her confidence in leading her younger peers. Her love is made visible in her work with the Golden Beads. For the adults who have been watching Anna grow, her love is made visible in her expression, in her remarkable demonstrations of knowledge and understanding, and in her desire to contribute to the learning of others.
Another example: A four year old boy writing three-letter-phonetic words with the Moveable Alphabet paused to say, “I love you,” to his teacher. “Also,” he said, “I’m having fun right now.”
And a shared conversation: One Sunday, a four-year-old girl told her mother she was “school-sick.”
“You mean you are sick of school?” her mother asked.
“No, mom! It’s like homesick. It means I’m missing my school.”
The love of one’s environment is the secret of all man’s progress and the secret of social evolution. It becomes manifest in people who have survived life’s vicissitudes, who have been able to keep their integrity, or who have rediscovered such integrity within themselves. Love of the environment inspired man to learn, to study, to work.
–Maria Montessori, Education and Peace
Maria Montessori endured the horrors of two World Wars, often living in exile. While we have not suffered the same experiences of widespread carnage, 2020 is not a peaceful moment in human history. Parents today are preoccupied and distracted by a relentless awareness of interpersonal and international stress that has reached a level unmatched in recent memory.
Montessori’s message is as relevant today as it was in 1907, as urgently important to children in North America as it was to children in Rome. She believed that work inspired and energized by the love of children is the only sure pathway to peace. Her Valentine for children was and is the creation of environments where they have an uninterrupted opportunity to work so that their love may be “made visible.” Her Valentine for parents was and is the assurance that their children are growing up in an environment where peace is made real.
I’ve been to school two times today. The first time in my dreams, and now I’m here.
— five-year-old Montessori student, greeting his teacher at the start of the day