This article is written by Don Czerwinskyj, who holds an AMS Early Childhood Certificate and has over 30 years experience as a teacher and administrator. He has been an instructor since 1979 and has presented all the curriculum areas. Don is the director of Wellspring Center, the founder of the Master Class and Montessori Fundamentals and has served as an AMS Consultant and MACTE evaluator.
Before turning your attention to your classroom environment and planning what you will do with the children, it is best to take a little time for reflection. You may ask yourself what you need and what the children need and try to discern where the one ends and the other begins. A way of going about this is to understand your personal motives and your care giving motives. Personal motives may be defined as all of our wishes and intents for ourselves. Personal motives include our teaching desires, which include all our wishes for the children, the parents and our colleagues. Care giving motives, on the other hand, center exclusively on accurately meeting the developmental needs of the children. In her classroom, the wise teacher puts aside her personal motives and desires in the service of the child. She understands that the role of the teacher is to be care giving first and that all education starts from this point.
Calling the Children to Life
The process of building a classroom community is a two-fold story. The first is the story of the growing relationships between the teacher and the children. The second is the story of each child’s discovery of her own competence, as she plays and works in the prepared environment. A classroom community is gradually born as the children discover themselves and their competence within their warm relationships with the teacher and each other.
Each child brings to us a unique set of abilities and talents as well as learned reactions and inner obstacles. It is our work in the early days of the school year to foster the development of what is best in each child and to help her overcome the obstacles to her development. Careful observation and compassionate guidance are instrumental to this process. As we observe the children and identify their talents and the obstacles they face, we offer activities which will stimulate and reveal the best in them. When the children discover themselves in their relationship with us and in their work, they come into their true or normal selves.
As the children grow in their relationship with the teacher and explore the environment, they become engaged in an ever increasing number of activities. In time, they find a number of materials which they return to and repeat because theses activities gratify their motive for learning. In the beginning days of school these activities are often from the Practical Life, Art and the Sensorial areas. A comfortable routine of exploration and repetition is established over time. This routine is termed the work cycle. Once a child has established a work cycle, do not interfere in any way or invite her to other forms of Wellspring Montessori Teacher Education Center ! Please Do Not Duplicate Without Permission activity. The periods of unfocused activity grow shorter and are followed by periods of calm and deep concentration.
Taking Charge and Finding a Balance
From a practical point of view, the wise teacher understands the reality that her children come to her from a variety of homes and cultures and bring with them a wide range of talents and natural endowments. She has learned that many children come to school happy and at ease with themselves while others come to her unhappy to various degrees. The experienced teacher knows that in the first days of the school year the children go through an adjustment process on their journey to a happy community. She knows that her task at this point is to offer a warm relationship with each child individually. In relation to the group as a whole, she works to establish ground rules to preserve the children’s health and safety. She does this by being unfailingly kind, understanding, compassionate and business-like.
The experienced teacher knows that her greatest influence on the child is her presence and availability. She works hard to always remain present and emotionally open in the face of the child’s ever evolving needs. She makes it her business to always respond to the child in need and to go to the child who calls to her.
Presence may be defined as the capacity to be physically present at the time and in the place where she is needed most. She is ever alert to the beginnings of things and learns to anticipate when and where her presence is required. She presents the ground rules on the line and is untiring in modeling and reintroducing them throughout the day. She has learned that self regulation, the capacity to make positive choices and to develop a sense of community will not appear easily or immediately.
To lead these little souls to a peaceful community, the wise teacher knows she must take herself and her authority seriously. Authority, in this classroom, may be defined as the capacity to help children make positive, self-care taking decisions. To take on the authority of a leader, the teacher must act consciously to find the balance between rigid discipline and permissiveness. A rigid attitude assumes that all children are equally capable of following the ground rules and that disciplinary practices such as time-outs and making children suffer the consequences of the mis-steps are justified. A permissive attitude is based on the teacher’s reluctance to set appropriate boundaries because she fears that she will upset the children and won’t be liked by them. The balance lies in the understanding that children will mature into responsible, compassionate adults by identifying with the beloved care givers.
A personal understanding of your experience of authority will help you to use authority reflectively in your classroom. Our personal attitudes towards authority are formed in early childhood. Those of us who have experienced authority as helpful guidance take to giving direction and guiding children naturally. For those of us who have experienced authority as not always helpful or as harsh may feel conflicted about taking a leadership role in the classroom. If you have had a negative experience with authority, it is important to let yourself know it and to make peace with it.
In the course of your work with young children who are by nature immature and lively, there will be times during the day when you may react emotionally and perhaps feel upset and irritated. This is only natural and human, but to react out of frustration is never justified. In those times when you find it hard to set limits or you are tempted to respond harshly, it is best to step aside and let another adult take over.
The Key to a Happy Community Is Observation.
Conscious and regular observation is the key to guiding your children on their way to community. You will want to learn to observe on several levels. At its most basic level, observation is simply watching the group to ensure their safety, comfort and happiness. At this level, you want to see what your children are doing and to anticipate their needs. You will note which activities are popular and how individual children spend their mornings. You will also keep a close eye on the children who need extra help and note when they are most vulnerable. At another level, you will observe the social dynamics of the class and how the group moves through the day.
At a deeper level, you will learn how to observe and follow the children’s motives. Their motives center on their desire for relationship pleasure and effective agency. Put another way, you will find that each child wants your warm regard and admiration. She also wants to fulfill her potential by learning to take care of herself and to learn to use her mind. You will learn to recognize with pleasure her eagerness for closeness and her pleasure when she engages your care giving motives. You will also recognize that some of your children have learned inappropriate ways to engage with you and their friends. When you understand their plight you will treat them with special care and affection. As you gain an understanding of motives, it will clarify your role when you give lessons. You will understand that your lessons, in addition to their content, have the meaning of care giving love.
The Curve of Activity
In time you will discover that the children move through predictable periods of activity. The morning usually starts with a period of exploration. The children move around the room, choosing several activities, and work with them briefly before they choose an activity to stay with from the first period of the day. The activity level of the room moves from mild confusion to a working hum. Most of the younger children will usually settle in the Practical Life and Sensorial areas. You will find that most of the older children congregate in the Language, Math and Cultural Subjects areas. When the children are done with their first activities, normally at mid-morning, the group is on the move again. The younger children leave their side of the environment and migrate to the other areas and older children move to Practical Life and Sensorial. This period is marked by increased activity and a joyful noise. In time, with much attention and loving care on the teacher’s part, a sense of community is established. This transition period, which grows ever shorter and milder as the year progresses, signals the onset of a period of calm and satisfying activity.
With experience you will learn to anticipate and prepare for each period. At the beginning period of exploration, you and your assistant will be on hand to help the little ones with the exercises of daily living. Next, you will assist the older children with the curriculum materials and invite individual children to try new activities or return to complete works from the previous days. In time, you will anticipate the transition period and you will welcome the little ones as they move into the academic area, and your assistant will remain on the other side of the room to help the older children. You will react to the hubbub and increased activity with a calm demeanor because you will know what will follow.
The Prepared Environment
The wise beginning teacher takes her cue from her experienced colleagues by preparing the curriculum areas simply and focusing on practical preparations for the arrival of the children. Before the children arrive, take care to organize your cloak area, for it is here that you will greet the children. Prepare the area with a full length mirror, a coat brush, a small basket, containing a sewing kit, a pair of scissors, roll of masking tape and a laundry marker. The sewing kit is for emergency repairs; the tape and the marker are for labeling the inside of the children’s coats. The coat brush is to tidy up the children’s coats. The mirror is for the children to check how they look upon arrival and before they leave.
Next, prepare the classroom to be home-like, inviting and familiar. Arrange the shelves with a few carefully prepared activities, mostly from the Practical Life area. A selection of the kinds of puzzles, blocks and other manipulatives the child would play with at home, will serve to make her comfortable. To this add several water activities, e.g., large scrubbing, small scrubbing and dishwashing or clothes washing. The water activities, although they are unfamiliar, are great fun and will entice the children to try new forms of activity. Also make a few of the Sensorial materials available. Finally, have a selection of some of the more complex activities available for returning students.
The First Days
The reflective teacher tries to see the first days of school through the eyes of the child. She designs her orientation days to help the children through the transition from home to school. She invites the returning students for the first day because they are familiar with the environment and with her. The second day is reserved for the new children and their parents because she has been reflective about the new children’s experience for the first day of school. The third day the returning and the new students have class together.
When reflecting upon the second day of class for the new child, try to imagine what it is like for the child entering her classroom with her mother for the first time. Try to understand that this may be an anxious time and is perhaps the first time that the little one is being asked to separate from her beloved mother. Welcome both the mother and the child into her “home” as special guests. Prepare two adult chairs in a part of the room that has a view of the entire space, one chair for the mother, the other perhaps for the father. Invite the parents to stay for as long as needed until both the parents and the child feel comfortable.
The reflective teacher understands that her first task is to establish a partnership with the parents. Your partnership with the parents is the key to a comfortable separation process. Viewing this process through the eyes of the child makes it abundantly clear that the children love their parents and will separate from them as they gradually sense that their parents are comfortable with the teacher and the environment. In most cases, the children separate from their parents uneventfully.
In other cases, due to the unfamiliarity of the situation for both the parent and the child, they may both experience separation anxiety. It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine how the anxiety originated. What is clear, however, is to focus on easing the transition. Your task at this time is to concentrate on helping the parent feel more comfortable. You can do this in several ways: you might warmly invite the parent into the room to sit at an observer’s chair and bring a rug and an activity for the child to work with on the floor near mom. Or you may invite the parent to sit on the floor with the child and look at a book. As the child experiences the parent being cared for, she, too, will feel cared for.
Donny’s First Day
Donny, a three and one-half year-old, and his mother came into the environment looking ill at ease. They hesitated at the door. Mom looked unsure of herself and a bit embarrassed by her son’s unwillingness to enter. The teacher approached, saying, “I’m so glad you’re here. “The mother answered, “I’m sorry we’re late, but we had to go around the construction zone on the way here.” Donny, wide-eyed, looked from the teacher to the mother. Taking her cue from the emotional situation, the teacher can respond in one of two ways: if the mother wants to keep talking, the teacher listens or, if the mother is uncertain as to what to do next, the teacher guides the mother into the room and offers her an adult chair that was placed there for that purpose. If the moment seems right, she tries to engage the mother or the child in an activity by bringing a floor table and placing it near them and placing an activity, e.g. a cylinder block on the table, and removes one cylinder and puts it on the table, smiles warmly, and observes at a comfortable distance. Before long, mother and Donny are happily playing.
The First Weeks
In the first days and weeks, you’ll meet children from a variety of home situations and school experiences. Some children will take to the activities naturally and easily, while others will have difficulty finding engaging work. At this juncture it is important to offer the children a warm relationship and guidance. Montessori tells us the teacher need not be concerned about the various types of children she will encounter, meaning those which are more or less unhappy. The teacher need not try to correct every instance of disruption; she must instead keep her imagination alive. The wise teacher will see this child standing before her, not for who she is today, but that the child will reveal her true nature when she discovers herself in the warm relationship you will offer her.
In the first days and weeks, your work needs to proceed on three levels. You need the offer a warm relationship and engaging activities to each child individually. At the same time, you need to be careful never to turn your back on the group. Finally, you need to establish your ground rules and help the children come to an awareness of themselves as members of a community. The best place to start is through collective lessons on the line. Although collective lessons are inappropriate for presentations of curriculum materials, the collective lesson is an effective means to establish ground rules and activities for community.
At first keep individual work time brief; limit it to sixty or ninety minutes. Concentrate on engaging the children in the basic activities of practical life and sensorial. Sometimes it is best to present activities that, though they do not have great educational value, are engaging and interesting to the child. For example, you may show the children how to make a castle out of a basket of unit blocks, or draw a princess for them. One teacher brought a small wooden top to class and showed the children how to spin it and take turns. Another teacher brought toy cars and built a race track with the children. In this way, the children begin to discover their possibilities with all the materials in the room. Other more practical presentations are particularly useful, such as showing the children how to move their chairs from place to place without making a sound, showing them how to run from end to end of the room on tiptoe. Before you draw aside to leave the children free to choose, direct them for some time, showing them not only what to do, but also what not to do. Serene, firm and an understanding presence and voice reach out to the children’s hearts in praise or guidance. When your children become comfortable with the basic activities, you can offer more advanced materials and activities to the children.
When you bring out new and more complex activities, the children will want to know how to do them. Some children will ask directly, while others may indicate interest by touching the materials on the shelf or simply carrying them to a table and playing with them.
At this stage do not be over eager to give presentations or to correct every little mistake. It is important to always bear in mind that the materials are meant to be an aid to development. As long as the children do not misuse them in ways that may harm themselves or threaten to destroy the material, it is best to observe their activity. When their interest is exhausted, and the time seems right, you may offer to show the child how to work with the object or offer to help her put it away.
If the child indicates she needs your help, and you have built a trusting relationship with her, you may try a direct approach by asking her, “May I show you something?” If she responds positively, help the child bring the material to a work space and demonstrate just enough of the activity to get her started. When demonstrating an activity it is best to do so without explanation. Explanations take the child’s focus off the activity and force her to split her attention between your words and her motive to play. As for the child who may be hesitant to engage with you directly, you may give a presentation indirectly by bringing an activity to a nearby work space where she can see your work and do it yourself.
When giving presentations, try to be aware of your personal motives and teaching desires so as not to interfere with the child’s motives to master their activity. Respect the child’s choice when she refuses your invitation to join you in a lesson. When she does join you, be content with what she gets from your lesson and do not try to show her more than she wants to know. Respect the child who makes a mistake. Trust that she can correct it herself in the moment or at another time. Your duty to the child is to bring the best of yourself to your lessons you give–nothing more and nothing less.
Occasionally, a child will attempt to take a material they find attractive from another child. At this stage the teacher’s reflective attitude is crucial. The experienced teacher reflects and interprets for the child. What may appear as disruption to the inexperienced eye is in reality an invitation to further closeness with their teacher. The experienced teacher interprets the child’s intrusive behavior as a socially immature attempt to join in play with a peer. On another level, the experienced teacher interprets this ostensibly inappropriate behavior as a call for help. In the moment, she will give the child the reflection for her motive to use the unavailable activity, saying, “I know that you would like to do this, I have another one.” In the case that there isn’t a duplicate the teacher will offer an attractive alternative. If the child refuses both offers, ask both children if they would like to work together if they are amenable to it, and stay nearby until the children are playing happily. When the teacher’s attempts to engage the child in the activity prove unsuccessful, the experienced teacher interprets the child’s behavior as a motive for increased closeness. She gratifies the child’s motives for closeness by keeping her company until she feels comfortable.
Line Activities for Community
It is best to dramatize your ground rules and activities for community. Children love stories and role playing. In the first week prepare the line area with a bouquet of flowers and invite the children to come to the line. Greet the children warmly and by name. Introduce your bouquet saying, “These flowers are here to remind us that some things are the same and some things are new.” Then name the people and things that have not changed since the previous year. Next, introduce the new children, any new faculty and any changes in the environment. At dismissal she offers each child a flower, saying, “This flower is for your mom to remind her that some things are the same and some things are new.” In this way, the teacher demonstrates to the children in a memorable way the meaning of community, and at the same time reaches out to the parent community.
In the following days, play games, show the children finger plays, sing songs and lead them in group movement activities. Over the next weeks present the exercises for elementary movement: rug etiquette, how to sit at a table, how to get an activity and how to use the restroom. In this way by consistently repeating these simple activities from day to day, the children will discover the joys of community. A selection of line activities follows.
Line Activities for Celebrating Community
I. Beginning Activities
Line activities are primarily for movement and building community. Attendance at line is optional and children who decide not to attend are invited to do a quiet activity. Introduce and practice basic activities until most of the group has mastered them.
- Call assembly with a bell or song
- Toes on the line
- Sitting and standing
- Walking and stopping
- Choosing a work
II. Activities for the First Few Weeks
Repeat beginning activities until most of the group has mastered them before introducing new activities. Always present movement activities in the same order so that the children can one day lead their own line.
- Repeat to re-establish order
III. Advanced Line Activities
These games can be introduced in the first weeks after the group is comfortable with the beginning activities.
- Walking Games
- Hopping Games
- Bell Games
- Body Parts Games
- Ribbon Games
- Ball Games
- Bean Bag Games
- Balance Beam Games
- Rope Games
IV. Finger Play and Songs
- The spider on a mirror game
- The floor, knees, shoulders and head game
- “My Little Pony”
- “The Community Song”
- Invite children to take a turn leading activities when group is comfortable
VI. Oral Language Sharing an observation:
- “Today I saw Kegan working with . . . “
- We are like a family:
- “We are together everyday, like brothers and sisters.”
- We are a community “Miss Joyce’s class joins us on the playground . . . “
- Sharing and speaking in turn: “The three years olds go first because they are learning to wait. The five year olds know how to wait.”
- Sharing concerns: “I have observed that the art table needs to be tidied.”
- Showing appreciation: “Mariah and Kevin helped to set the tables today, thank you.”
- Sharing a sense of togetherness: “I can see that this class is learning very well.”
- Affirmations: “Today I saw Tushar helping Annalynn. Tushar that was sweet”
- Story Telling: “What I did last weekend”
- Sharing: “Who would like to tell us what they did?”
VII. Establishing Ground Rules
- Carrying a chair: “I can put it down without a sound.”
- Carrying a table
- Carrying a tray
- Rug etiquette
VIII. Grace and Courtesy
- Line etiquette, “The three year-olds go first because they’re learning to wait . . etc.”
- How to speak to someone who is busy: “Excuse me, may I interrupt?”
- How to ask for help: “Excuse me can you help me?” “Thank you for helping”
- How to wait: “Excuse me I am helping Jacob, can you wait one minute?”
- Expressing feelings:” No thank you . . . “
IX. The Silence Game
The silence game is a unique part of the day. It’s the only activity where everyone needs to cooperate at the same time. The silence game is a very special activity and is never used as a classroom management technique to quiet the group.
- First introduction: “Today I will show you a special way to be strong.”
- Preparation: “My toes are very, very still, my knees are very, very still. . .”
- Waiting for a silence to gather.
- The end of the silence game is signaled with a contented sigh.
A Period of Transition
By late fall you will begin to see concentration beginning to build. You will discover that concentration takes many forms, depending on the child. For the young child, concentration will often progress from working briefly with one or two activities in the course of a morning. Older children may reach a place where they move consistently from one activity to another, perhaps completing three or four in the course of a morning, while other children begin taking out activities that take fifteen to twenty minutes to complete. You will see children beginning to cooperate and help each other. A happy buzz of activity will be heard and from time to time you will hear children sing out with joy. At this early stage in the year you will also discover that these periods of concentration can be fragile, inconsistent and that the children are easily distracted. Even a word or a look or the slightest hint of correction will burst the bubble. At this period it is tempting to assume that the class is normalized, but there is still more work to do. At this period it will be tempting to add more materials, activities and to change line procedures. This will only add to the instability. Now it is best to offer fascinating activities to the individual children to invite them to representations and to always keep an overview of the entire group. When giving presentations that require more than a few moments, be sure to have your assistant watch over the group.
The Final Stage: The Hidden Hinge
In time, if all goes well, a new consciousness is born in the children- that of community. Little by little, moments of concentration grow longer and more consistent. This is the time to observe carefully, not with the aim of making your presence felt or to lend your strength. Rather, observe to recognize the special moment of concentration as it occurs in each child individually. At this stage, the children discover that you have been the servant of their development and their hearts open to you. Your abiding care, understanding and work have acted like a hidden hinge to open the world to them. Of this discovery is born altruism, a love of work and a sense of trust. A deep affection awakens in the child for all people and all things. You will then experience an amazing and explosive rush and may feel overwhelmed. As in the first stage, you must not be distracted by their excited actions. Focus on the fundamentals; represent the materials in which they have shown interest. In time, your efforts will have their effect and the curve of activity will stabilize. Though it has been said many times that once the classroom stabilizes that the teacher should fade into the background and act as if the children do not exist. There is still one crucial task for you to perform. Once the children have discovered their new powers, they will come to you for approval. This is not the time to offer advice or urge the children to further work. This is the time to offer lavish praise and positive reflections. There will come a time when the children will leave your environment and forget their work and perhaps not remember you. But your loving reflections will abide in their hearts for a lifetime.
WellSpring Center / A Montessori Companion &Guide / Don Czerwinskyj ©2009
Wellspring Montessori Teacher Education Center | Please Do Not Duplicate Without Permission