Thursday, October 30, 2008

To Display or Not The Children's Art

Last year the Montessori by Hand yahoo group discussed at length via many emails whether or not children's art should be displayed in the classroom. No one idea was settled upon. Instead, a variety of thoughts and ways of displaying art or not was simply exchanged.

I have had heads of school tell me not to display the children's work as it may encourage competition or may inappropriately highlight the adult's perception of "good" or "beautiful" art and therefore wound the child/s whose art is never chosen for display.

At one school I worked at, the policy was that art done by children who had either graduated from Primary or had moved on to another school could be displayed. However, art by current students could not. I really do not have a strong opinion for displaying or not. I did like one post made during the Montessori by Hands discussion on this topic. The writer said that she displayed her children's art work in her home on the walls and on the refrigeratior. Since she saw the classroom as the chidren's home away from home, she felt that it was important that their work be displayed in their second "home".

One day last week, several older children were working with the metal insets. They were making some wonderful drawings.

Half way through the morning, I noticed a couple of these children standing in the library area with tape in their hands. (I was wondering why they had come to me earlier asking where the tape was.) These children were taping their metal inset work on the wall beside the collection of portraits that hang there.

I asked them what they were doing and they stated very simply, "We are hanging up our work so everyone can see it." No need for a discussion with a dozen or so experienced Montessori directresses via a yahoo group. I responded, "Okay, but don't put too much tape on the wall because it can peel off the paint." They said they wouldn't and I walked away.

A few minutes later, I spoke to Patti about their dispayed art. She said that her children's Montessori school displays the children's art for a week and then changes it. I added that it was of particular interest to me where our students had chosen to hang their art. They did not just put it here and there throughout the classroom. Instead, they placed their work next to other hung images. Makes sense to me.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Phases of the Moon

How does a child leap from buttered toast to the phases of the moon? He masters the metal insets by returning to them again and again, year after year. Then in a flash of a moment, when the physical world is suddenly seen as geometric composition, he makes a leap towards abstraction and discovers in a metal inset and its frame the phases of the moon.

I have some pretty strict rules regarding the use of the metal insets. First, the child must always take out both the frame and the inset. The frame provides a constant reference to the shape being traced. Secondly, the colored pencils in the metal insets area are to be used for that work and that work alone. And, all though this is not a complete list, the children may not color hearts and rainbows all over the paper making the work an art exercise instead of a handwriting one. I always have drawing paper available for children who want to sketch or to draw a picture, so this is not a denial of artistic expression but rather a seperation of materials for the acquisition of specific skills.

So when I saw Jack take out the quadrafoil and begin tracing it while it was only two-thirds on the paper, my silly-metal-inset-drawings radar started blinking. But, I reminded myself that this was a very focused and skilled student who was also one of my oldest students. So I waited a few minutes before calmly wandering over to his table to catch sight of what he was doing.

"Miss Dyer, doesn't this look just like a slice of bread," he said looking quite excited about his discovery. I know that his mother is an excellent baker and could immediately see what he had described. I decided he was not hiding behind this work or misusing it but rather finding geometry in everyday objects. A few moments later I heard him tell a classmate that he loves jelly on his bread. I later viewed his "bread" drawing colored in purple. He drew a second slice of bread but this time placed a couple pats of butter on the now toasted (colored brown) slice of bread instead of jam.

He returned the quadrafoil to the metal insets shelf and went back to his table with the triangle. A few moments later he showed me the star he had made which was now colored blue.

After returning the triangle, he started walking away with the circle metal inset and frame. He took a few steps and looked down with a startled expression. He then walked over to me and said, "Look Miss Dyer, the phases of the moon."

I could see that he had slid the frame over the inset and the shape that was made was of a cresent. Besides the obvious image, I was surprised to hear him call the image, "Phases of the moon." Before I knew it he was settled down at a table with a piece of black paper and a white pencil. He said, "I want to first draw the full moon, Miss Dyer," and he did. Then he drew several other phases of the moon. Before long he had started drawing a picture of the moon with a comet flaring across the sky and a rocketship in the foreground. He worked all morning on this. I was instantly reminded of the work he had done in September assembling and painting a space shuttle.

Cristina and I looked at his work just before going home. I talked about how many teachers I know who don't allow any extensions or art with the metal insets. I confessed to my own strict rules regarding using multiple sheets of metal inset paper for the drawing of hearts and such within the shapes. She wisely said, "Yes, but you knew Jack wasn't doing that. Would he have ever found the phases of the moon if you had stopped him when he was drawing pats of butter on his quadrafoil slice of bread?" The answer was obvious. His discovery arose from the three freedoms offered him: the freedom to move, the freedom to chose work and the freedom to repeat that work. It is via the repetition of work that discoveries and insights are found. Jack found the celestial universe. That is one huge find!

(PS. The Phases of the Moon cards are available at Montessori for Everyone.)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Update on Seasonal Activities for the Month of October

In my last post, I wrote about and described mosaic seed/bean work. The older children have been pretty successful with the work making some lovely pieces. However, I noticed that the younger children have avoided it. Just before I went to school on Thursday morning, I read Beverly's post stating that the work might be a little too challenging for her young children. So...and this is why posting is so important...I made some adjustments and re-presented a second method to do the work. Posts from readers offer critiques, suggestions and affirmations. The changes I made to this lesson stemmed directly from Beverly's brief post.

I walked around my kitchen with my coat on and my keys in my hand. I had a flash thought of how I was going to do the amended presentation and I needed to grab some things from my pantry, push them into my purse and leave so as to arrive at school on time. I needed and found handleless cookie cutters. I quickly picked five, crammed them into my already full purse and made it to school in time to set up the changes.

When the opportunity came for me to present the modifications, I went for it. I told the children that they could still use the frames and insets from the botany and geometry cabinet but that they could also select a cookie cutter (as I opened the tin and showed the selection of cutters to the class - there were alot of oooooohs and ahhhhhhhs) and use it as follows: After selecting a cutter, place it on a piece of paper and trace its outline. Now remove the cutter and, using a paintbrush or a q-tip, fill in the traced shape with a layer of white glue (this is the second photo down - it is hard to see the glue). Re-position the cutter back over the outline and then spoon beans/seeds into the cookie cutter. I made a point of telling the children not to fill the shape but just to spoon in enough to cover the bottom. Next, lift the cutter off the paper and move it aside. Now, lift the paper and, while tapping one side, shake the excess seeds/beans back into one of the small bowls. Using your fingers, or a new q-tip, shape the image as needed. Too, a child may then use markers to add to the image.

When all is done, as part of preparing the tray for the next student to use, the child replenishes the small bowls with seeds/beans or other materials.

I did the entire re-presentation and the child who took it from the shelf next said, "I don't want to use those cookie cutters. I am going to use a shape from the botany cabinet." And that was more than fine.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Seasonal Activities for the Month of October

Two fall activities were presented this week. The first was seed/bean mosaics. The second was decorating a pumpkin. The mosaic work is always a big hit. Several wonderful pieces have already been created by the students. The images below will probably look pretty familiar as many teachers have this work available in their classrooms. I used shapes from both the botany and the geometry cabinet. I really thought the one with the botany cabinet design came out beautifully. See for yourself:

The second lesson was on decorating a pumpkin. As I was inheriting this work from another teacher and unsure as how it was presented, I asked Cristina to present it to the children and to me. A single pumpkin is made available for children to use one at a time. Watercolor markers are used to decorate the pumpkin. When they are finished decorating the pumpkin, they take a water-wet paintbrush and wash away the markings. They then dry the pumpkin and prepare it for the next child's use. This has become a very popular work in the classroom and Cristina did a great job presenting it.

In the pictures above, Cristina uses a marker (not seen in photo) to decorate the pumpkin and then she shows the children the face she drew. Next, she uses a paintbrush dipped in water to wash aways the markings. Lastly, she uses a orange cloth to dry the pumpkin. A sponge is also made available for wiping the placemat.

I love walking by the children as they do this work and seeing the wide variety of faces drawn and then washed away.

A Quick Update on the Zero Activities

All of the children had brought chairs to the large rug to sit in as they had been told that a lesson on decorating pumpkins was about to begin. One of the children suddenly remembered that she had not placed her name tag on her work and so got up to do so before the lesson started. I then noticed something odd. Another child had placed her legs across the seat of the first child's chair. I ask the child why she had her legs like that.

From across the room, the first child, the one who got up to put her name tag on her work, said, "She is pretending to be my zero, Miss Dyer."

I looked at this child for a moment and then silently looked back over at the child with her legs on the chair's seat who explained to me, "I am being her placeholder."

"Wow," I heard Cristina say. I just smiled and thought to myself, "Yup, they get it."

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Tray Returned to the Shelf, Musical Chairs and Zero - Exercises in Understanding Placeholding

The following post is an extension of my earlier post dated September 8th titled, "What Does An Empty Tray on the Shelf Tell?"

"A place for everything and everything in its place" is a cornerstone element of the Montessori method. Placement is prioritized. To create a more independent environment, methods of placement and placeholding are maintained by both the adults and the children in a Montessori Primary classroom. Yet, again and again, I have listened to frustrated lead teachers and assistants talk about how children repeatedly returned trays to the wrong shelves or even piled them up on top of one another. These teachers/assistants are not requiring that the tray be immediately returned to the correct place on the shelf after the removal of the materials on to a table by a child. Instead, they have the child work with the materials while they are still on a tray or they have the child place the trays under their chairs or tables. In the mean time, other children desperately looking for a place to return their trays see an open spot on the shelf and place their finished work there. This can be easily solved.

Children should return the emptied tray to the shelf immediately before doing the work. The tray, as I stated in my earlier post, becomes a placeholder. There is nothing on the tray but the tray holds the place. This is exactly like zero. Zero is nothing in terms of quantity but it holds a place. It's significance can not be exaggerated as it is that important to math.

I wanted to extend this understanding of placeholding beyond the tray and link it more specifically with zero itself. I also wanted a presentation or an activity that all of the children could participate in. I decided, with the help of an MIT visiting professor friend of mine, Barry Kort, to have the children play musical chairs. To extend the concept of zero as a placeholder, I told the children that in the beginning there would be a place for everyone and everyone would be in their place - referring to seating rather than specifically placement. When they all sat down in chairs arranged in rows back to back, I added one more chair and placed on it a sheet of paper with zero drawn on it.

Next, I told the children that they were to march around the arranged chairs when the music was on, but as soon as it stopped they were to find a place to sit down. I also told them that I would occassionally remove a chair or two and/or zero would be placed on the seat of a chair. This would limit the seating. There would not be enough places for everyone to sit. I asked them why they could not sit in a chair with zero on it. One child instantly answered, "Because it is like the trays in Practical Life, it is holding a place." Great answer.

I also told them that only one child could sit in one chair. I said it was like math; you never put two numbers in one place. Before I put on the music, I had the children practice walking around the chairs and sitting down on the chairs. I then divided the class selecting one group to go first, followed by the second. All of the children looked eager to start.

I put on the music and they began walking around the chairs. I carefully removed one chair while they walked and I placed the sheet of paper with zero on it on another chair seat.

They walked around and around.

I stopped the music and they sat down. There was no pushing or shoving. They just waited for the music to start again, which it soon did. More and more chairs were removed and the zero was placed on one chair and then another.

When there was only one chair left, I placed the zero on it. The children still walked around it to the sound of music. When the music stopped, they circled the chair and just stared. Not one attempted to sit on the seat. I started the music again and quickly replaced all of the chairs including one for zero. I stopped the music and everyone had a seat.

It was a great exercise.

My friend at MIT even suggested that elementary children play this game as a means to understanding homelessness. When there is no place for you, you feel you are displaced, left outside. I can see his point. For my purposes, it seemed to really impress on the children that zero is a placeholder.

The next day, I prepared the snack table while Cristina watched the children on the playground. I drew on the snack chalkboard the word zero and the image of zero itself. When the children came in, they stood looking at the zero. They looked a litte concerned. "I am hungry for snack," one of the younger children said to me. I said, "Well, go ahead and have a piece of pumpkin bread." The child looked at me and said, "But zero is nothing. I can not have nothing snack." I walked over to the small chalkboard and said you are right. I then said that I would change it.

Instead of erasing the zero - which might lead to a child erasing a zero in a math equation - I flipped the chalkboard to reveal a 2 - for two pieces of bread. The childrens' faces flushed with joy. One was so relieved that he pointed at the two and just smiled.

Again, it was a very successful lesson. I continue to seek out new ways to teach zero as a placeholder and will share any that I find.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

"I Need a Bird for the Birdhouse." she said.

I have enjoyed watching the children build small projects. The most recent was the assemblage of a bird house. I have discovered that Patti is amazing at assisting children in bringing a wood working project to completion. This was the case with the bird house. I was so impressed when I listened to her ask the child making the house to run her finger over two parts placed back to back to determine which one was slightly larger than the other. What Patti is great at is assisting the child rather than simply fixing any construction issues by doing it herself.

It was the child, however, that did the work and she did a wonderful job of sanding, painting and assembling the bird house. When she was done painting the front, she looked at me and said, "I need a bird for the birdhouse." So she drew one on the back solving that problem. Later, I hope I hear reports or even see photographs of real birds visiting it.

When the birdhouse was completed, I redirected her to the "Part of the Bird" booklet that she had had a lesson on the year before. As I have already seen, children who work on large manual work projects return to the math and writing materials with more focus and more detailed work.

A New Memory Work with Coins

Last year, several students worked with the money mystery bag - purse. They carefully rubbed the tips of their fingers over the edges of the coins, felt their thickness and determined which coins they were while blindfolded. It is a lesson included in my sensorial album.

This past week, a wonderful living example of the three/four year Primary program happened. It is also a great image of mentoring as the older child was using the money mystery bag and was observed by a new three year old. The three year old then went to get the first mystery bag of small objects and returned to sit next to the older boy. He placed a large tissue between the blindfold and his eyes (to help prevent the spread of eye infections)and went to work. I love this image of a three year old and a soon to be six year old sitting side by side working.

Several of the older children have mastered the coin mystery bag. Last week I presented a new work that had them working intensely. It required pure focus, concentration and memorization. Adults are very familiar with this type of work. I have it on the shelf in the math area in a metal tin mirroring the color of most of the coins within.

Inside the tin are two small cloths, and two of each coin kept in a small blue box.

More are added later. One child takes out the small cloths and the coins and returns the tin to the shelf. The child then places the coins vertically on the cloth in an order that they select independently. They allow the seoond child to have a few moments to study and make a mental impression of the coins order. Next, the first child covers the coins with the second small piece of cloth. The second child then attempts to duplicate the covered coins placement. When the second child is confident that he has placed the coins in same order as they are under the cloth, the cloth is lifted and the placement is compared.

This is not an easy exercise. I heard several moans regarding mis-placement. The first child changes seats with the second and the work is repeated with the second child now placing the coins in a vertical order and covering them with a cloth.

Two more coins were added to make the work more challenging. When I was walking by one of the children looked over at me and said, "This is hard, Miss Dyer." I answered, "Good."

This is a two person work, although a single child may also do it challenging himself.