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Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Magic of the Montessori Classroom: Normalization

A normalized child is someone that observes, comprehends and acts.

Normalized, meaning restored, derives from the word normal. I am sure parents want their children to be normal. I am equally sure that once their baby has been lucky enough to be born strong and healthy, most parents refocus and start wondering about the attributes their child might have:
“Could her little feet be trying to dance already?”
“Look at those strong arms; he looks like he could heft a football someday.”
“She just stared and stared at my magazine. I think she is trying to understand what reading is.”
“What if he has a talent neither of us notices, or one that neither of us can help him with?”
“How can we know what's best for our child?”

These are the questions. The answer is normalization. This term comes from Dr. Montessori herself. Normalization is as complex as it is simple. So I'm going to take you on a visit to a Montessori classroom in order to explain the unique effect it has on children, unique and profound. I don't mean to say that other schools with open classrooms couldn't achieve this, but I'm simply stating that it has not been done yet.

We pause at the classroom door to shake the hand of the directress, who is shaking the hands of all who enter, saying, “Good morning.” She shows us to chairs that have been placed in a corner for us visitors. The room is quite pleasant, half carpeted, half tiled, with small tables and chairs on the carpet but mostly small stands on the tile. There are a few large plants and many shelves along the walls cordoning off areas. But what catches our eye is on the shelves! A set of blue and red metal inset plates, all different shapes displayed on a rack. On a shelf not far from it, is a wooden tray with beautiful golden glass beads made into cubes and squares and bars. There is also a large wooden floor rack with very large wooden puzzles; the visible top one is a colorful map of the world's continents. Over in the corner is a book rack between two chairs. Not far from this are the most eye catching shelves of all, the ones with the meter-long red rod and its nine smaller rods forming a stair. And next to it the famous pink tower and the brown stair. There are so many things to marvel at! As the children begin to work, two are at stands in the tiled area We can see that Jose is slicing a banana to eat at the snack table. He invites Hannah to join him for snack so she becomes busy washing up at the hand-washing stand.

So the morning has begun. The children have arrived, and as they enter many have immediately found their own work to do. For about ten minutes the remaining third of the class has walked about, greeting friends, looking at shelves and deciding what they will do. The directress gives these children a few more minutes, then speaks to them individually often suggesting work, something they may need to complete or might like to attempt again. Then she gathers the remaining children for her presentation. We see four children still walking around the room, undecided. One of them, Jeremy, asks Aisha seated at a single table if he may watch as she solves addition problems with the bead frame. She nods, so he stands respectfully behind her watching her every move.

With her gathering of five the directress sits by a rug on the floor presenting a set of cards, the parts of a bird, each card having its particular bird part (beak, wing etc.) highlighted in red. It is a three-part matching set with the directress holding the bird control card with its denoted colored part, and the five children each taking turns finding, matching and naming the parts. While she does this, some of the earliest children to arrive that morning have finished and are taking out other work. Jerry and Saul have decided to do the banker's game together and are placing golden bead bars on their work rugs next to wooden numerals. Aisha and Jeremy have finished snack and decided to wash their dishes so both are wearing aprons at the dish washing stand. Zander and Elias have brought some geometric solids (the sphere, the cylinder, the cone, the rectangular prism, and the cube) each one at a time to a rug, matching each to its name card. And now they are experimenting, trying to match each solid shape to a two-dimensional one from the geometric cabinet. Aisha has finished her bead frame problem and written her problem and its solution on special math paper with colored pencils, green for units, blue for tens, red for hundreds and green again for thousands. Jeremy has gone to the book corner and is lost in One-Eye Two-Eye Pink-Eye Blue-Eye. Nearby Mercedes and Callie are sitting at a table writing their own stories using movable alphabet letters.

A child can walk around the classroom and see other children working on so many different things, from the thousand bead chain to the puzzle map of Africa to the parts-of-a-tree cards to flower arranging. Some children will be writing letters or stories, some may be mixing dough for biscuits, many will be working with Montessori's sensorial materials. Every day is different. Some materials are always available, others are there for a time and as time passes are replaced by something different or more advanced.

Here is the opportunity for a child to see, work with, and challenge herself using the myriad of manipulative exercises within the classroom. Here a child becomes a scientist discovering himself. Normalization: what an innocuous word to be the door to a baby's future. It is perhaps the most important difference of all the differences. It is why in a Montessori classroom you will find some children working at tables, some children working on rugs on the floor, and an occasional child will be standing, watching someone else work. Some children seem to be collaborating on the work they are doing. A few children may be looking at the materials on the shelves, trying to find a particular exercise, or just browsing to see what might pique their interest. No one is fighting. No one is yelling. All this concentrated work is due to normalization. All this peace is due to normalization.

Why is the directress not a teacher? She certainly does teach. But she is not in constant charge of all the minds. She is not supposed to be. Montessori saw that children needed to move more than they needed to sit. So she devised educational activities that allowed them to move. They needed to walk and carry things, things that meant something to them. They needed to learn how to do the caretaking work like that usually done for them, work like preparing fruit or vegetables they could share with others, or scrubbing a table when a mess has occurred, maybe even scrubbing a table for the fun of scrubbing it. These are all things that empower children. And normalize them. In a Montessori class children become in tune with their own learning processes. They learn to trust their own instincts and in doing so become sensitive to their own development, both the physical and the mental. They learn to learn from each other as well as the directress. This doesn't happen sitting at a desk while listening to a teacher talk all day. That is stultifying---no matter how good or kind the teacher.

Children who grow up in Montessori classrooms have a whole different grip on life. Life serves them because they have met it all along the way and made it theirs. I wouldn't know this necessarily because I have taught in a Montessori classroom because all the children in my classes were small. But I have two adult children who spent most of their childhood in Montessori classrooms and they are amazing. Yes, they are successful, both in their own ways, but that is not the amazing part. The amazing part is how they dance with life, the give and the take, the buck and the jive. They seem to grow from every experience, good and bad. And this is all brought to life through the sanity of normalization. Love helps too.

1 comment:

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OCAdXjlLBA&feature=related