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Friday, July 30, 2010

The Movable Alphabet

The basic movable alphabet used in a Montessori classroom are flat plastic “cut-out” letters roughly corresponding to the sandpaper letters in size, shape and color (pink consonants, blue vowels). Children who know enough sounds can begin to use these to build words. A small word or two could be pieced together on a table and then copied if that is what the child wishes. Or if not, she can have a friend read it aloud, or even turn it into a read-and-do game; for example, “hop.” Longer words and sentences can be formed on a rug. As a child's skills grow, he begins to write creative stories or even messages to friends or family. Soon after he reaches this stage of competency, he ceases to need the movable alphabet.

“Alis! Come see what we made! A really long word! Can you read it to us?”
I go to see this very pink word so very long that they have placed it on a rug on the floor. This is what I see:


I dive in, pronouncing each sound in as rapid succession as I can.
“Is that what you were trying to write?” I ask. They are laughing.

“No? Do you know why this sounds so funny?” They shake their heads.

“I need some blue letters. Those blue letters let me open my mouth so I can let the sound out. The blue letters all have open-mouth sounds. Come with me.” And we walk over to the shelf where the movable alphabet tray resides.

“See these blue letters? They are very special. They are the first important sounds you made as a baby.” Now I am pointing to the letters in their trays as I say. “Back then you knew how important these sounds were when you said 'a-a-a-a-a!' or 'o-o-o-o-o!' or 'i-i-i-i-i!' or 'e-e-e-e-e!' or even 'u-u-u-u-u!' You were very smart as babies." Pointing at the letter a, I tell them. "When you said that loud 'a-a-a-a-a,' your loved ones heard you and came to see what was wrong. You knew these sounds were important when you were a baby. Don't forget to use these important sounds now."

"Pick your favorite open-mouth sound and take its letter back to your rug, See if you can make a word you can actually pronounce now that you have your favorite important blue letter.”


The terms consonant and vowel will be introduced at a later stage.


Children in a Montessori classroom begin to use the classroom's analytical tools for language, both auditory and verbal, at the age of three. Of course, these first-year children are at the very beginning of their school experience, and in any given classroom they will vary in both age (by a few months) and in interests. So the role of the directress involves piquing their curiosity and often waiting. Once the directress determines that a child is normalized, a child's own agenda has priority.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Miss Tate vs the Montessori Classroom

Before babies speak even barely recognizable words, they communicate with sounds of their own, a language that mothers quickly learn. We, all of us, are born teachers. And voracious students. We learn best when we are teaching. We teach best when we are learning.

The teacher in a Montessori classroom is usually called a directress. Teachers are to be found in front of a class. But directresses are much more difficult to find because a directress might be sitting on the floor with a small group of children, sitting at a table next to a single child, or standing to one side watching quietly. Since there are almost always more than one adult in a classroom, determining which is the directress can be difficult. Although this may seem strange, it is part of the magic that gives the child's education back to the child.

A normalized child is one who senses her awakening intellect and acts on it. She may include a social connection as I confessed to in my previous blog. For my teacher to be as angry as she was, she must have thought I had planned what I did. No. This social silliness was totally impromptu. And had she simply taken me aside and explained that she thought my actions inappropriate, or if she had completely ignored it as I would have as a teacher-directress of young children, I would never have remembered that I ever did such a thing. So, should I thank her?

Writing is powerful. When young children come to realize this, some of the first-those most needing to find their personal power-will practice sounding out simple words and writing them. A few go to extremes. Girls do tend toward the more romantic words like hug, luv or love, and kis or kiss. Spelling varies. Boys who have heard curse words, sometimes try to write the simpler ones for the shock effect. I encourage all of them to write stories instead because you can make pictures in people's minds with stories. The movable alphabet makes this possible.
Next: the movable alphabet.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why I Wish I Had Gone to a Montessori School - 1st Grade

I began “real” school in first grade. My teacher, Miss Tate, was a short round no-nonsense woman with a white bun at the nape of her neck. She wore long dresses with opaque white stockings and heavy black shoes with thick high heels.

One day my father gave me a tablet of lined paper so I brought it to school and showed it to my friends. Of course each of them wanted a sheet. This was 1949 and the previous years of World War II rationing still made perishables dear. I thought quickly and decided on a qualification. I whispered, "If I give you a paper, you have to write 'I love Dennis' on it.”

“OK.” “OK.” “OK.” “OK.” Four girls quickly agreed. This was not a hard sell because he was the most popular boy in class. I myself favored Robert Ludeman but he was shy, so I was writing of love for Dennis too. Before our work time Miss Tate gave a reading lesson where we all took turns reading aloud. After that we could read further by ourselves or draw pictures. This was the time I had waited for. We five sat at our designated tables and began to write. I was just beginning the “L” when Marianne quietly slipped out of her chair and came to lean over and whisper in my ear, “How do you spell 'love?'”

I obviously hadn't planned ahead. The spelling part hadn't occurred to me. “I don't know,” I admitted after pondering the question. “But I can find out.” So I approached Miss Tate's desk knowing no fear. After all, she was our source of all knowledge. “Miss Tate,”I said as quietly as I could without whispering, “How do you spell 'love'?”

“What? What did you say?” She looked up. “Oh, 'L-O-V-E',” she replied and returned to marking grades in her book.

On my way back to my table, I passed Marianne's table. “It's 'L-O-V-E',” I hissed, then quickly found my seat to continue completing my part in this love hexangle.

Too soon Miss Tate's voice penetrated my concentration as I decorated my love statement. “Please move your arm, Dianne. I want to see what you are working on!”

“Miss Tate! Oh, no. please! Just look at Marianne's paper! She's doing the same thing I'm doing.”

“Yes, I do see what Marianne has written. Just what is this all about, girls?”

“Miss Tate, it's not just Dianne and me, it's Betty and Carolyn too! Alice made us do it.”

Miss Tate turned red and walked to the front of the class. “Alice! Come up here and bring your paper.”

I knew this could be the worst thing that had ever happened to me. It hadn't occurred to me that this would make Miss Tate mad. We were just supposed to become a group of friends sealed by a secret. It shouldn't have had anything to do with Miss Tate. But I had to ask her how to spell 'love'. I brought my paper up to her at the front of the class. I tried to hand her my paper.

She glanced down at it. “No,” She said. “I want you to read it to the class.”

I stood in silent panic. No, no. no! Dennis will think I love him and I don't. Robert will think I love Dennis too when I really love Robert. And my friends will hate me forever.

“Alice! We are waiting!”

I can't. I can't. I can't...

Miss Tate picked up the yardstick from the chalk tray and held it behind me. “Alice!”
She hit me on my rear end with it, but the real pain of humiliation was yet to come.

I couldn't stop my tears.

“I love Dennis.”

Saturday, July 10, 2010

From the Hand to the Brain

Hand washing is the Montessori exercise that awakens the hands that awaken the mind. Watch the meditative expression on a three year old child's face as he stands in front of the water bowl soaping his hands, or when he places them back in the water bowl watching the soap as it wafts from his hands to the water's surface, and you will understand how powerfully the hands inform the brain. You will understand why the hand washing exercise is so important.

Then give a child a variety of appealing manipulatives. Include many conventional household items. These materials must offer increasing challenges for growing minds. And you have the physical basis of the Montessori classroom. No, don't look for them in your local toy store because, despite the fact that they call to children, few of them seem toy-like. They call to children in a more serious respectful way. Looking at them, working with them, a child realizes that he too can learn important things, that he too can be an effective person in his own way.

Without competent use of his hands, a child's intelligence cannot develop properly. Not being able to use his hands effectively preys not only on intelligence but on behavior as well. Some think that a young child who is incapable of obedience has no initiative. Or if a child seems lazy or sullen or sad, the cause is psychological. But there is a surprising cure. A child who has been able to work with his hands, using his hands to serve his own purposes, develops his confidence, his awareness, and becomes outgoing. As the hands develop, so does the mind. Intelligence grows with character when the hand grows the brain.

Maria Montessori discusses this in The Absorbent Mind, chapter 14, “Intelligence and the Hand.” She also discusses in this same chapter the child's developmental need to walk; and as soon as he is able, his need to walk while carrying objects of his own choosing. She cites examples from anthropological history that inspired her thinking. So she wisely set up her classrooms to serve these biological needs of young developing children. Here a child walks about the classroom to select an activity he wants to work with. Then he carries it to a table, or if the selected work is large, he stops first to place a work rug on the floor.

So today right here in the USA, there are wonderful Montessori schools with remarkable, effective, children busy learning to be interested in everything around them, learning what their relationship is to their environment, and learning how to effectively interact with it and with each other. Shouldn't all children have this opportunity?