Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Class Engagement, Tantrums, and Play


"An interesting piece of work, freely chosen, which has the virtue of inducing concentration rather than fatigue, adds to the child's energies and mental capacities, and leads him to self-mastery." Maria Montessori, The Child, Society and the World p.188, Chapter 19

Am I correcting my students too much? Should I intervene, or should I fade back and give the child space to discover for herself? I find myself asking this question again and again. It requires a deep kind of discernment. This week, I have had a special opportunity for reflection.

I have had the pleasure this week of observing a class at another Montessori campus. Time slows down in the observer’s chair, and I take notes about what I see. One day, I watch all of the activities of a three-year-old child, as she labors over the squeezing grasp of the scissors for over an hour, in her own purposeful concentration. She develops herself, and I watch the scene in wonder, thinking how easily her work could be mistaken for playing with the scissors. A hasty teacher might correct this “play” and take the scissors away. I wonder, would I have mistakenly intervened in my own classroom? In her wisdom, the Montessori directress in this room did not redirect the child to the superficial task of cutting the yarn. She fades back, observing from a distance and giving other individual lessons. How did the directress know when to fade back like this? How did she know not to intervene? Meditatively, I keep watching.

Another day, my eyes follow the activities of a four-year-old child. This particular child walks in the room crying. Spending all day with children, I can tell cries apart: He is partly tired and partly denied something he wants. He lays on the floor bawling. He yells. In my room, in the past, I probably would have told him to get up. And if he did not stop yelling? “Please sit in this seat until you can join quietly; you are disturbing others.” Yet, this wise guide does nothing at all, and I puzzle. For 45 minutes he rolled on the floor. No one acknowledges his tantrum, neither the Montessori guide nor the other students. They each continue their own work, too engrossed.

Then, the child stands up, apparently done crying. He walks around the room slowly. He wanders to the sensorial area of the room, wistfully sighing as he passes knobbed cylinders and baric tablets. He wanders past the snack table where two girls chat quietly over their King Cake and go to wash the dishes. He loops around through the language shelves, looking at nothing in particular. And in my class, what would I have done? Would I have told him, “Please go choose your work,” in that directive style? The guide has been watching him. I can tell she is purposefully silent, as her eyes flash intelligence. Then, she stands and walks to the center of the room.

Here is the moment that awakens something in me: She had been sitting, small in the child’s environment. When she stands, ever so gracefully and slowly, she catches this wandering four-year-old’s attention. With the warmth and rapport between them, she looks at him in return and extends her hand in invitation. Magnetically, the child comes to her and takes her hand. Silently, they walk to the mathematics shelf, where she crouches and invites, “Let’s see. You can work on your addition, don’t you think? Let’s take that out.” He looks delighted, so eager to begin. He carries his work to his table, organizes it, and continues this work with concentration so deep that his brow is furrowed. He works addition questions in complete focus for the rest of the day, maybe two solid hours.

But how—how could a four-year-old focus for two hours? Don’t they say that children in pre-K have a ten minute attention span? I saw it. The directress sat near this child as he was starting his work, occasionally commenting in a way that guided points where he was unsure, reminding him of what he "knew already" to do from the lesson. Then, she turned her chair away from him to remain close while he worked, yet disconnected. She spoke with other children, and it was in her fading back that he proceeded to work on addition problems with great concentration, completing maybe a hundred or more. Yes, a hundred.

There is something incredible that had just gone on here. In a summary, (1) a child screamed and cried for nearly an hour with no correction. (2) He wandered the room with no correction. (3) Then, when invited to just the right work at exactly the right moment, he found independent focus deeper than if he had been instructed what to do for an entire class day.

There seems to be a misconception that Montessori schools are permissive and unstructured. I’m not sure of the origin of the myth, but I have heard more than one parent explain that Montessori is not for them; “Little Johnny needs lots of structure.” Does he? Does little Johnny need someone to tell him to get up off the floor, be quiet, and go to work? After the children had gone home, I spoke with this Montessori guide. I asked her, “How did you know when to go to the middle of the room like that, to extend your hand in invitation to work? Why that moment of all moments?”

“If I had corrected him sooner, he would not have gone on to that concentration.” The guide watched for his pause of “What next?” She tells me that it takes practice, watching to see which problems they can resolve on their own. Dangerous and hurtful behavior needs immediate correction, but many other perceived misbehaviors only need a lesson later in grace, care, and courtesy, or a second lesson presentation. For myself, this intuitive sense of when to correct and when to fade back and wait for the right moment is still emerging. The order of the classroom cannot be on my timetable. Curiosity and concentration cannot be demanded, only sparked. When I can see that moment, my intuition on when to act must born out of that oft-repeated Montessori incantation, “Follow the child.”

Soon, observers will come to my public Montessori classroom. They will be principals and administrators from other campuses, to give me something like a summative evaluation on the Dallas, Texas’ Distinguished Teacher Review. That means that people who do not understand our special Montessori approach will be evaluating my efficacy as a teacher, and this makes me nervous. Yet, this is my hope— I hope that in the 45 minutes that they observe my class scoring student engagement, they observe the child leading her own work, sometimes in a winding path around the room. I hope they observe a child working, even slowly, through his own frustration until arriving at the peace to begin that work of deep concentration. And, I hope they can find the stillness and patience to see that the child’s purposeful work in the spooning of beans and practicing putting on a coat, acting out shaking hands to say good morning. This is deeper engagement than all of the children listening, eyes on me. They may not see me correct a “misbehavior”, but if they observe keenly, they may see the children gravitating and being gently guided toward their own independent work, building their ability to concentrate and self-regulate as a skill for life.

One could have explained this moment for gentle guidance to me five hundred times, and I did not see it so clearly until this Friday. So, I have a little bit of thanks to offer: Thank you, Ms. Garrett, for opening your room and the spirit of Dr. Montessori’s compassionate pedagogy more fully to me. The memory of your outstretched hand inviting the child is the living symbol of all we seek to do.

Jeannot Jonte Boucher (a.k.a Johnny) is a primary guide at Eduardo Mata Montessori, a public school in Dallas, Texas. When the school day is over, Johnny gets busy with his other passion, writing. You may read his articles in the Dallas Morning News insiders feature, or you might run across K-12 curriculum and children's stories by Johnny in Istation educational software. Johnny is working on a Master's degree in Early Literacy. Outside of the classroom, Johnny has the gift of two lovely children, Toby and June, and loves to paint portraits and sing in community shows with his partner, Ashley.

Johnny is currently the Greater East Dallas Teacher of the Year, awarded by the chamber of commerce.

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