27 February 2011

Madam Montessori, Still Teaching!

Chuck Oates
27 February 2011
Norman, Oklahoma, USA



Madam Montessori, Still Teaching!

This excerpt from a letter to a friend of mine in Europe should make you wonder why we're not all using the Madam Maria Montesorri's method to teach our young children.  It's not just for smart kids, by the way; it was originally developed for kids who had learning difficulties and were slow to learn.  It works well for them, but when it's applied with brighter kids, they essentially use the method to teach themselves, in a quite guided way.  

I should mention that my daughter Carri has an M. Ed. in Montessori pre-school education from Oklahoma City Univeristy and a certificatioin as a Montessori "primary" (pre-school) teacher. 

Enjoy!
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...

"We went to Carri and Dustin's house last night after supper to give them a hand with building a greenhouse, a 2 m  x  2.5 m affair that'll extend the local growing season a couple of months at both ends.  We took with us a set of Montessori "knobbed cylinders," the second in a series of four [geometric puzzles] that Montessori pre-schools use for developing the sense of diameters, lengths, and so on.  You can see the full set of four at http://www.kidadvance.com/Store/Category.asp?catid=1&offset=12 .  They're at the top left with the name Cylinder Blocks, SE003.  These matching cylinders and blocks are disassembled and re-assembled by Montessori three-year-old (or so) kids so that they can develop their vision and sense of touch.  

"Amy, who is now a year and ten months old, had learned to work the simplest of these already, the block with cylinders whose diameters decrease as their lengths decrease.  After Amy showed us her skill with the block and cylinders she had been working with, Carri got out the new block with decreasing diameters and lengths that increase as the diameters decrease (considerably harder to put together), and went through the Montessori ritual of introducing it to Amy.  She showed Amy how to unload the cylinders and then reload them into their matching holes in the wooden block.  Then they put the work (the cylinders and block) on Amy's Montessori equipment shelf where it will 'live' from now on.  

"When it came Amy's turn to go get the work and do it herself, she carried it to the low coffee table where she works on such things, and set it down.  She then took all the cylinders out and scattered them on the table.  In a matter of a minute or two, she had all of these differently shaped cylinders back in their holes in the wooden block on her very first try, no muss no fuss.  Also, during the re-loading, she had set the longest skinniest cylinder on its end on the table and balanced it perfectly while it awaited placement into the block.

"I'm not sure how much you've been around little kids, but this is usually something only kids over three can even begin to do, and doing it more than a year early is pretty phenomenal.  Of course one year to a two year-old is half their life.  It was an amazing performance.  All of us applauded and said, "good job!"  Amy was overjoyed and proceeded to work the puzzle again for us.  I suspect that Amy has inherited ["Dah-Dah"] Dustin's ability to visualize in three space and solve puzzle-like problems.  

"Amy is also counting on her abacus, in the curious sequence 1, 2, 3, 9, 9, 9, 9, 9, 9, 9.  This is the sequence that very young children often use, something like the counting sequence in some South Pacific island native languages that count "one, two, many."  Again, it's something that Amy is doing way ahead of the usual age for such things.  Taken together with her ability to recognize, act out, and say a few written words now (ball, hi, wave [as a verb], goat, cat, dog, Amy, and so on), it appears she's really "blowin' and goin' " on learning all kinds of stuff.  [Thank you, My Baby Can Read, also.]

"When I babysit her, she continually brings me her hard-page books and insists that I read to her, while she turns the pages.  She loves geometric puzzles, and can entertain herself for quite a while doing simple flat picture puzzles, as well as the more complex "put the hexagonal cylinder (prism) through the hexagonal hole, the square cylinder through square hole, etc." puzzles.   

"Okay, I know *all* grandparents continually go on and on and on about their grandkids, and I've just proved I'm no different, but nonetheless I am astonished at how quickly Amy is catching on to stuff.  Her speaking vocabulary is still pretty small, but it's had an explosion lately, as well.  Her listening vocabulary and ability to understand our directions and comments, though, is--have I used the word "astonishing" already?  

"The fantastic part of all this is that Amy seems to love doing all this stuff.  She is so proud of herself when she conquers something like the knobbed cylinders or a simple picture puzzle that she gives her trademark ":D" grin, laughs, applauds herself and jumps for joy.  She's almost always interested in the next game or puzzle or whatever, and in the rare events when she's not, Carri doesn't push her.  That's the whole idea of the Montessori method:  to recognize when the kiddo is ready for some activity and present it only when they're ready.  The modern Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget [zhaah pee-ah-ZHAY] (http://bit.ly/hntjIJ) worked out the formal details of all that, but Madame Montessori (http://bit.ly/ebezlV  <--be sure to at least look at the picture at the top of this article) developed the method in the late 1800s.  When the kids are ready for an activity, you don't have to do any more than just introduce them to it, and they'll do the rest with considerable enthusiasm.  Kinda makes ya wonder why we do lock-step teaching in school, boring the bright students and baffling the slow ones, doesn't it?

"I guess I'm just having a twenty-some years later replay of Carri's early childhood.  Then, I was watching Carri acquire all these skills after I had had to watch my dad gradually lose almost all of them, at least intermittently, over several years.  Having watched Dad's decline, it was *really* wonderful to watch Carri's development and acquisition of all these capabilities only a year or two later.  There's a blog entry about all that here, if you're in a reading mood:  http://chuxstuff.blogspot.com/2011/02/lemons-and-lemonade.html .

...

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A good introduction to the Montessori method in "primary" (pre-school) classrooms:  http://slidesha.re/dUZBKE .  Also, http://bit.ly/ebezlV .

Oh, have I mentioned that a Post-It Note is now known as an "Amy" around our house?  Amy pulls a blank sticky note off the pad, brings it to us, and says, "Amy, Amy, ..." until we satisfy her request to write her name on the sticky note!

Lemons and Lemonade

Chuck Oates
29 October 2006
Norman, Oklahoma, USA

Lemons and Lemonade
Many years ago, I shuddered when my wife, Sue, appeared at the classroom door in the middle of one of my classes at O.U. She beckoned, and from her expression, I knew the news was not good. My grandad (and adoptive dad) had had a stroke. His recovery was uncertain at best.
Over the next several weeks, I spent every weekend in Amarillo at the hospital and then at Dad's home as he made a partial recovery. He was partially paralyzed on one side. His formerly clear and capable mind was a hodgepodge of his old self and a different and strange person. He was unable to identify which room of the house he was in, but able to give me driving directions around town in Amarillo. He could not distinguish night from day, though his vision was quite good, and he would often rise at 2 a.m. and attempt to drive his car to a nearby coffee shop, with near-catastrophic results on one occasion. His condition varied from day to day. Some days he was almost his old self; others, he was helpless and almost completely confused about virtually everything. Over time, the latter became more and more common.
I watched as my dad declined for the next seven years, losing first one ability and then another, until we finally exchanged roles as father and son. He spent his last 18 months here in Norman in a nursing home. I used to take him to visit our family farm in Texas west of Woodward, Oklahoma because, though he had difficulty knowing where he was or what time of day it was, he could fairly consistently remember the part of his life he had spent as a child and young man in Shattuck, OK and Higgins, TX. I learned a great deal about early-1900s western Oklahoma and about his parents and siblings that I would never have known otherwise. I also cleaned up a lot of BIG messes.

When he died, I was devastated. He had been my granddad, my dad, and in some senses my brother and at the very last, my child. I thought the moon and stars might well come crashing down from the sky. I took some comfort in the fact that part of him--me--was still very much here, alive and well. For a long time afterward, and particularly while I was acting in his stead as the executor of his will, I signed my name with my full middle name, his given name, in his honor and in recognition of the fact that I was, in a number of ways, operating for both of us.

Like many bitter events, this one had a sweet antithesis that wasn't long in revealing itself. Within a month after Dad's death on Christmas Day 1980, Sue was pregnant with our one and only, Carri. She was born the following October. The wonder of that event can't be put into a few words, but one thing was soon very clear. I saw in everything Carri learned, in every new skill she acquired, all the things I had had to watch my dad slowly lose. The joy of seeing those abilities arise in dad's (great-)granddaughter are beyond measure or description; my appreciation of their appearance, though, was exponentially increased by the terrible experience of having to watch their disappearance in my dad. That effect was anything but anticipated during Dad's decline, but most welcome during Carri's childhood.

There are several potential lessons here. The most obvious is that, operating without knowledge of the future, we are very often unable to appreciate the full significance of the current events in our lives. The saying, "Life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backward, if at all," captures this idea well. Another is that the aphorism, "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade," can leave us without any reasonable idea about how to make lemonade out of what's available. Yet another theme is that life, though finite for each of us as individuals, goes on through our offspring, and part of making the most of our very finite lives should be to ensure that the generation(s) that succeed us get a good start and have an environment, both locally and globally, that will permit them to flourish ... And on a much more practical level, the lesson is that baby diapers are absolutely no trouble at all if you've dealt with the adult variety, or the lack thereof! :^)
Make it a good day,
 
Chuck