Friday, November 11, 2011

NaBloPoMo: Real Work, Real Helpful

So back on the topic of being more deliberate teachers at school - which only builds the parenting toolbox - I recently had a beautiful experience subbing in my own son's Montessori primary classroom.  As I probably posted recently, we have been really struggling with armageddon getting ready for school in the mornings.  I'm not a morning person, my son is not a morning person, and we are both stubborn non-morning persons - how's that for three of the biggest understatements in history right there in one sentence!?  We would fight tooth and nail before school to get breakfast into that kids tummy, to get pajamas off of his screaming flailing body, to get clothes back onto that flailing screaming tear-drenched body, and to get that flailing screaming tear-drenched furious body into the car and buckled into the carseat to go to school - oh, and I didn't even mention that there was another baby to dress and feed and a DIRE need for coffee.  I was a mess... for far longer than I care to admit... and we were consistently arriving with the 15-30 minutes late crowd, which is a BIG NO NO for children in any school setting, but especially for children so sensitive to order and ritualistic about their daily routines, as my very young son is.  I had become that parent, with the child that is always late.  Oh, that I would have known this was ahead of me when I was smack-talking about how annoyed I was with constantly tardy 3-yr-olds when I was a new assistant!

The situation was pretty frustrating, did you pick up on that?  The last day that we had this kicking screaming royal rumble of a morning, I was scheduled to sub in my son's class and we were both 30 minutes late for school because of the clothing battle.  I sent him in sniffling and went to the PSO coffee social to get a grip of myself before I had to face a classroom of 25 of his peers (many of whom were my former students... I was his teacher's assistant for a year before Liam was born).  At the coffee social, I vented the problem to the PSO president, who has a very cool 10-year-old daughter, whom I've known since she was probably 5.  She told me she was very familiar with this struggle, and that there were times that she loaded her daughter into the car, clothes in a bag, and drove her to school - one time in her underwear! - and that the problem promptly ceased.  I was impressed.  Over the course of the day, I met no less than 4 other parents who shared similar stories - getting rid of pjs entirely, dressing the night before school, wearing pjs to school, etc.  So I left work that day with some resolve to turn this mess around.  I e-mailed his teacher, a dear friend, and asked for her suggestions, to which she said she gave her full support - that she and the assistant would follow through with consistency on the issue if he did, in fact, show up in pjs.  Get to the point, Renee, this is supposed to be about school communities!

A week or so later, I was called in to sub in his class again (after only mediocre attempts at getting to school clothed and on time... we dressed in the lobby a couple times, and were still leaving the house screaming).  I walked Dominic into the classroom and into the restroom/dressing area and handed him his clothes.  I went to go get a much-needed cup of coffee, and returned to him standing on the dressing bench looking over the half-wall at me... still in his pjs, I know, you aren't surprised.  I tried to give him space and ignore him, so he could dress himself, to no avail.  He finally started calling me from across the room, and I went over to him to see what he needed, only to be met with a "NO!  I NOT!  YOU DO IT!"  So I stood up and scanned the classroom, and I called upon a child who seemed a little distracted in his work (a child I know is an expert dresser, who once asked for a full dress suit as a gift for a birthday or something).  I invited him over and asked if he would be willing to help Dominic get dressed, and he was very willing.  So I asked him what needed to happen first and asked if he could just tell Dominic each step to getting dressed, and I slowly backed myself out of the dressing area... sneakily, so as not to be noticed.

Not a minute later my son emerged completely dressed, his pjs in a bag in his cubby, and his older friend was back to work at his table.  I continued with the morning, inviting children to simple lessons, and redirecting children from silliness or back to forgotten works (I really don't do anything elaborate when I am a sub, as I want to be extremely respectful of the teacher's plans for lesson giving, and respectful of the children who I have not observed enough to give lessons).  It came time for 10 am false fatigue, and the classroom seemed to fall apart into loud, seething, chaos.  There was work on every table and mat, but not a child to be found at that work... which, for you non-Montessorians, is totally normal and tends to happen 1.75 hours into each 3-hour work-cycle; the goal is to shrink the duration of false fatigue as it usually leads into the most concentrated time of work at the end of the work-cycle.  I walked around to the loudest groups and asked that they lower their voices so others could concentrate.  It is a hard thing to be comfortable about false fatigue, especially for me, and it was a surprisingly lucid day for me to look at the clock during the chaos and realize what was happening and let it run its course.  I invited a few strategic older children to offer help to younger children who had "lost their work," and like magic, the class started to settle into "bigger" work.

Everyone settled into some work, and I sat to observe a bit and help a child with the names of countries in Europe.  About 20 minutes before dismissal time a few children had finished working and started wandering around again, so I invited them to join me in reading about the parts of a leaf (shockingly interesting to children 3-6, if you happen to have rolled your eyes at that prospect!).  As more children started to join us, parents of children in the toddler community accross the hall gathered right outside of our classroom windows waiting for their children to be dismissed - among those parents, my mom who was picking up my youngest brother.  The room started to become a little chaotic again as children realized it was "group time," and my son was getting out a knobbed cylinder block.  He dropped the block right at the edge of the group, spilling all 10 cylinders, which he proceeded to toss in the air... while the parents of other children were looking in on this display, and while I was making a futile attempt to describe the "primary vein" and the "margin" of the leaf.  Maria Montessori, who often manifests as the Holy Spirit, happened to be flying over at this moment, and zapped me with a brilliant idea (these are few and far between, my friends).  I invited another of the older children (who was causing me some trouble during the book) to help Dominic pick up his work so he would be ready for dismissal.  The child was happy to oblige and I didn't see another cylinder fly through the air; quite the contrary, the cylinders were restored to the block and the block was returned to the shelf.  We continued the book, we sang a song, and we lined up for dismissal.

I later found out that my mom was pulling some kind of Olympic ice-skating commentator move in the hallway, pointing out to the other moms, "I wonder how this will turn out; that is my daughter reading a book about... leaves?... to the seething masses; that is her son throwing those cylinders, which I am pretty sure is not the appropriate use of that material; and I know that she is pretty specific about materials being used appropriately... let's see if she lands this triple salchow..."  I think I landed it, but it was a Hail Mary pass inviting a sometimes rowdy 5-year-old to manage my always-NOy-son!

Moral of the story:  children are much more likely to listen to other children and/or accept assistance from other children.  You may be one of only two adults in the room, but you likely have 10 or more eager helpers an earshot away.  Children are naturally more gentle with their peers when it comes to assisting in challenges - often, they have only recently overcome the same challenge, making the teaching opportunity particularly poignant for reinforcing new skills.  I've also come to notice that when a child helps another child, they only help the minimum amount (in the best possible way), allowing the child who needed the help to do as much of the work as possible, strengthening his feeling of competence.  When a small child can't quite operate the zipper on her coat, an older child will put the two sides of the zipper together and zip a couple teeth up, but then turn the zipping over to her younger friend, who very-much wants to be able to do it herself.  This act of helping other children empowers the older group of students to develop a sense of leadership and a deep joy in assisting others, at the same time the younger group is absorbing the generous and patient example of the older students, which will manifest again in a couple short years when they ARE the older group!  Montessori was so brilliant in her observations of children and the application of her observations to the creation of an educational pedagogy and practice that allows for the development of the whole child, an education that allows the child to participate in "real life" from the earliest stages.  I find it humorous when I hear people say things like "well, how do these Montessori kids do in the 'real world,'" because it seems so clear that they are doing "REAL work" all the time, while their traditional school counterparts are being reprimanded for "talking in class," even if they were just asking a friend to borrow a pencil.  How silly that question is, and how silly the thought that children should be doing anything other than real work!


  1. love it all. i leaned how to spell salchow, as well!

    but am still wondering what nablopomo means????

    and yes, i was very impressed at how you managed to concentrate on your work while the cylinders were rolling willy-nilly across the floor!

  2. NaBloPoMo = National Blog Post Month... a blogger I love is doing it and I decided to hop on the train because it had been too long since I last wrote and I've read and learned so much since my last post... it was time.

  3. Wonderful commentary, Renee!
    I think I work with a few of these 3 year olds in adult bodies...refusing to listen to the boss, but will easily accept suggestions from peers.

    I could just hear you reading about leaf veins and nodes.