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On Grace and Courtesy

"Grace and courtesies empower the child by letting them know that they can take ownership of their children’s house, their actions, and deal with the injustices that they see without the interference of an adult.”

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Word Magic:  an occasional column on children and nature, #1

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Word Magic: an occasional column on children and nature, #1

from Dr. Clifford, our Upper Elementary guide:

A few years ago, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published.  In an effort to offer a product most relevant to its newest generation of child readers, Oxford University Press removed many words that were considered unnecessary, adding new ones to make up the difference.  Among the lost words were acorn, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, dandelion, fern, heron, newt, otter, pasture, and willow.  New words included blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3player, and voice-mail.  In relating these changes in his new book of essays, Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane observed that "The substitutions made in the dictionary -- the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual -- are a small but significant symptom of the simulated life we increasingly live....  A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages....  And what is lost along with this literacy is something precious:  a kind of word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place."

I fear for the children of today, that they are losing vital opportunities to spend time in nature and engage meaningfully and creatively with the landscapes where they live.  In another column, I will explore the concept of biophilia, an idea proposed by the ecologist E.O. Wilson that young people have an innate tendency to bond with the natural world.  For my own part, I see that when I take children into the woods.  This week, Upper Elementary began what will be a regular feature of our classroom in the months ahead:  nature study.  We set off into the woods of Serenbe, blank journals in hand.  Our path led over a wooden bridge and along the banks of Cedar Creek.  There, out of earshot of machinery and other evidence of human presence but well within range of the calls of northern cricket frogs, the children found spots by themselves, to sit quietly and draw and write about those moments.  One student asked me to take a photograph of the stream to include in the journal; another found an intriguing flower and sketched it.  Everyone agreed that our time there -- a scant 25 minutes -- was far too short.  Next time, we will leave earlier, stay longer, perhaps even explore other places in the woods.  And someday this spring, we will set out with picnic lunches for some distant spot, perhaps the grindstone the Native Americans once used, situated high on a stony hilltop above the stream.  

Along the way back, I pointed out a few plants -- a flowering bluish-purple violet, an American beech tree still holding its withered leaves from last autumn.  Next time, perhaps I will invite the children to sketch something we find.  Or maybe I will ask them to close their eyes and listen, then make a sound map of everything they hear happening around them.  Slowly, from one visit to the next, the woods will become more alive to us, as we greet particular trees, rocks, and spots along the stream as familiar presences.  We will start to notice insects and birds, and tracks of deer and raccoons.  We will learn a bit more of the language of the forest -- a domain of acorn and heron, beech and bluebell far removed from virtual landscapes of broadband and MP3player.  In the words we write and carry, we will forge connections to nature -- ones that may well endure throughout our lives.



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Why are Montessori classes so large?

A Montessori class, especially at the Primary level, may seem very large at first to many parents. Each community is made up of from 25 to 35 children, spanning three-age levels, and in a perfect world, usually more or less evenly divided between boys and girls among the three age levels. Traditional schools strive for very small group sizes, and boast of ratios as low as five children to one adult. Naturally, with all this emphasis on small class size and low teacher/child ratios, parents often wonder why Montessori classes are so much larger. What is the reasoning behind this choice?

The answer stems from a fundamental difference in our perception of how children can be best helped to learn. Traditionally, parents and educators have assumed that the classroom teacher is the only source of instruction. By this reasoning, the lower the pupil/teacher ratio, the more time an individual child can receive and the better the educational experience.

As any parent knows, each individual child is a real person with a demanding set of expectations, opinions, interests, and needs. In a traditional classroom, whether teachers work with ten children or thirty, they spend most of their time either talking to the entire class or working with one or two children at a time while the other children listen, daydream, or sleep. Teacher time is a very limited resource.  Parents and teachers sometimes fantasize about classes that are essentially one-on-one tutorial situations.

But the best teacher of a three-year-old is often another child who is just a little bit older and has mastered a skill. This process is good for both the tutor and the younger child. In this situation, the teacher is not the primary focus.  The larger group size in the Montessori class puts the focus less on the adult and encourages children to learn from each other.  By having enough children in each age group, all students will find others at their developmental level.  

The art of being a Montessori teacher is in knowing how much help to give, when to offer it and when to wait. Unnecessary help is a hindrance to the development of the child.  As Dr. Montessori wrote, "Every useless aid arrests development."  
Offering help for something a child can do independently weakens the child, because he begins to believe that he must rely on the adult for things he could otherwise do himself. 

The assistant plays a crucial role in the Montessori environment. One Montessori-trained teacher and one non-teaching assistant works very well for a group of 28-35 children at both the Primary (3-6 years) and Elementary (6-12 years) levels. The assistant watches the entire group and offers aid when a child requires individual help or in certain social situations when a group of children require an adult to help them sort themselves out. Her role is that of an observer, and this is a great support to the teacher and allows the teacher to fulfill her primary role of presenting lessons and engaging children in purposeful activities.

We must also remember that the Montessori classroom is a carefully prepared environment, filled with fascinating, self-correcting educational materials. These materials allow children to work with a level of independence in a way that no school that is heavily dependent on texts, workbooks or computers can match.

Have a question you'd like answered? Email us!



Educating for Peace

"Peace" is a word we use often in our communities here at The Children's House.  As Maria Montessori developed her theory and practice, she came to believe that education was key to the development of world peace.  She felt that children allowed to develop in accordance with their inner laws would give rise to a more peaceful and enduring civilization.  From the 1930's to the end of her life, she gave a number of lectures and addresses on the subject, saying in 1936, "Preventing conflicts is the work of politics; establishing peace is the work of education." 

This peace is not to be confused with being a pacifist, avoiding conflict,  or letting someone control your every action.  It is a way to be confident in your choices, to be understanding of another's point of view, to have the ability and desire to find compromise when there is a difference of opinion, and remaining calm and expressing yourself. 

Each person's definition of Peace is slightly different.  Whatever your definition, it is important to realize that peace is something which is far easier to destroy than to create.  Sometimes it takes considerable effort to make peace.  Then there are times when it only takes a few words.   Sometimes it can be done by yourself, but other times peace simply cannot be accomplished alone.   Regardless of when or how, building peace requires thought and practice and it is always worth sharing with others.  

In each community, we practice acts of grace and courtesy that form and strengthen the bonds between us.   These connections are what we use to define what peace means to each of us.  Do all you can to help your child establish connections with the world around him or her.  Start simply.  A child can always understand that which he can hold in his hand.  Pick up trash when you see it.  Show your child that it is our human responsibility to protect life.  Before you swat that fly or step on that ant, consider if there might be another way.  Hold the door for others.  Greet strangers with eye contact and a cheerful hello or good morning.  Donate food, clothes, money and your time to those in need.  Help children understand and value the life they have by exposing them to other countries less fortunate than ours.  These are just a few examples of peace-building experiences.  We would love to hear your own!

Miss Lisa


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Why no homework?

Montessori schools are very different from traditional schools.  The use of materials and the multi-age groupings are some of the more obvious practical differences.  The biggest difference, however, is our goal: Montessori seeks to build the WHOLE CHILD.   You can sense this difference in orientation just by stepping inside of our doors.  Our goal is to prepare your children for life, not to prepare them simply for high school or college admissions.   Montessori schools all over the world work to help children to become people who think for themselves, creatively solve problems, and who possess balance, peace-making skills, compassion and moral courage that will prepare them to lead lives filled with purpose, meaning, and joy. 

Children learn at their own pace and they learn in different ways. We often hear parents talk about their children as "late readers" or "early readers".  Learning is not a race.   We believe that the more we as parents or educators push children to do things they're not ready to do, the more likely it is that many will begin to feel that learning is a chore.  Dr. Montessori writes:

An interesting piece of work that has been freely chosen has the virtue of inducing concentration rather than fatigue and adds to children's energies and mental capacities, and leads them to self-mastery.
… children must be free to choose their own occupations, just as they must never be interrupted in their spontaneous activities. No work may be imposed; no threats, no rewards, and no punishments used.

We believe that children are born intelligent, creative, and curious. We believe that they'll learn and explore most deeply when their attention is captured, without need for external pressures, rewards, or punishments.  When a younger child observes an older child working, the younger child will express curiosity and a desire to master the work.  This is nature!  When parents and teachers put pressure on children to perform to adult standards and set timelines, we are showing them great disrespect, though we may mean to inspire.  With the right approach, with the right materials and opportunities available, we can increase the odds that when our children are ready to learn something new, they will learn with real passion.

Why don’t we assign homework like everyone else? Don’t we want children to get into good colleges?  Of course we do, but we ask a simple question: why do we believe that assigning hours of homework to children after a long school day is the right way to go about things?  Do we believe that memorizing facts for a test will truly teach a child?  Montessori children who transition to traditional schools have no trouble mastering the art of the worksheet, though they may feel particularly frustrated as they are accustomed to seeing true value in their work.

School is only one part of your child's day.  Your children work very hard here at The Children's House.  They may feel, at the end of the school day, something like you feel at the end of a day at the office. Our job here at school is to sow seeds of knowledge during the confines of a full school day by offering them "grand and lofty ideas to explore", as Dr. Montessori writes. 

The secret of good teaching is to regard the child's intelligence as a fertile field in which seeds may be sown, to grow under the heat of flaming imagination.  Our aim is not only to make the child understand, and still less to force him to memorize, but so to touch his imagination as to enthuse  him to his innermost core. We do not  want complacent pupils, but eager ones.  We seek to sow life in children, rather than theories, to help them in their intellectual, emotional, and physical growth, and for that we must offer them grand and lofty ideas to explore.

After a day of learning at school, we deeply believe that children should have time to play, to pursue their own interests and be with family and friends.  This is time for their brains and bodies to rest, to absorb, to allow what has been sown to take root and grow.  

As human persons, we need periods of rest so that we can begin a new task with new energy.  Homework can easily become a power struggle between children and adults.  Montessori schools aim to instill a true love of learning, rather than requiring work through instilling a sense of obligation and fear.  Is requiring a child to sit still teaching the child self-mastery, or are we forcibly imposing our own will on the child?  We believe in the dignity of each child; we believe strongly and whole-heartedly that each child CAN achieve self-mastery!  Whenever children voluntarily decide to learn something, they tend to engage in their work with a passion and attention that few students will ever invest in tasks that have been assigned. Our goal is to inspire joyful thinking above rote compliance.

While most Montessori schools do not require homework, many schools ask children to read and write daily.  Our Lower Elementary students will work at home on spelling.  All of our children are asked to practice math facts at home, as learning these facts by memory makes math more enjoyable.  Our Upper children often bring home a project to work on, but they are fueled by their own passion, not by exteriorly imposed repercussions.  Connection between home and school can be achieved through parent involvement, rather than sending your child home with papers to evidence their learning.  Our greatest goal at The Children's House is to nurture the love of learning in all of our children, making them joyful learners for life.

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