Start to finish.

First of all, full disclosure: I am terrible at follow-through. If you want ideas, brainstorms, and creative concepts, I can provide them by the hundreds, but if you ask me to see them through to completion… well, you’d be barking up the wrong tree. But this post isn’t really about me.

One of the things I love about Montessori education is the way it teaches kids to plan and execute complex projects. Field trips, for example: in the upper elementary and middle school classes (ages 9-11) the students can decide that they’d like to put together a trip to see or experience something related to their current studies. The students must choose a destination, plan a budget, figure out travel arrangements (often by public transit), solicit parent chaperones (whose sole job is to be the adult-in-case-of-emergencies, standing back and letting the kids lead the expedition), and make all the necessary arrangements. From a relatively young age, the kids develop the skills to see a project through from beginning to end.

I try to incorporate this kind of learning into our life at home. Most often I’ll propose a project (for lack of a better name) to link aspects of our Jewish life together. On Tu B’shvat (the new year for trees) we planted parsley seeds in a tray. They’ve been transplanted to a pot outside and we plan to harvest them for Karpas (a green vegetable) for our Passover seder plate. It’s the sort of thing that establishes a connection between two different holidays and creates anticipation for the kids. I don’t do a lot of that sort of thing, but occasionally I’ll get an idea.

So when K’s school announced the annual Passover food drive, it occurred to me that here was an opportunity to use the contents of her overstuffed tzedaka box. She’s been putting coins into it all year, often (but not exclusively) just before lighting Shabbat candles. We’ve spoken about how the money she puts into the box will be shared with people who are in need – who don’t have the things we take for granted, like food, shelter, clothing, or health. Wouldn’t it be great, I reasoned, if she could see this mitzvah through from beginning to end?

I presented the idea to K. She loved the idea of taking out all the coins and counting them, and with some prompting she began to think of what passover foods a family might need. We emptied the tzedaka box and discovered a little over $100 in there. I rolled the coins in the hope that some nice cashier wouldn’t mind us paying our grocery bill in loonies, toonies, and quarters.

After school today, K and I hit the supermarket. I suggested types of food (“how about canned fruit?”) and she made the final decision on varieties or brands (“we should get peaches and mandarins!”) K loaded up the cart, I pushed it to the cash, and she carefully placed her selections on the conveyor belt. The lovely woman at the cash didn’t bat an eyelash at our rolls of change; she just counted out the coins and made conversation with K.

“How does the food get to a family?” K asked as we treated ourselves to ice cream cones. I responded that someone would pack boxes up, and then volunteers would drive the boxes to the homes of needy families. “We should do that!” she exclaimed.

And so this Sunday we’ll be tootling around town, just the girls, delivering boxes of passover food. With that final step K will have experienced the entire process of charitable giving firsthand. When I think about it, it’s quite an education – even for an adult – as by the end of Sunday we will have covered almost all of the steps involved in almost all donations to a direct-service organization:

  • set aside money for tzedaka on a regular basis
  • choose an intended recipient (charity or individual)
  • count and allocate the money
  • choose how to spend the money in order to maximize utility and value; purchase necessary goods
  • deliver goods to end users

Sure, I had to initiate the project and guide her every step of the way, but K is only four years old and this was a concrete way to link her dropping coins into a box with helping other people.

During our ice cream date, I told K that the traditional thing to say to someone who did a mitzvah like she did would be “yasher koach” or “may your strength continue,” and that she should continue to be strong so she could do more mitzvot. She commented, “I need to eat good foods so that I can get stronger!”  “Yes,” I said, “that will help your body get stronger, but you can make your neshama (soul) stronger too, by doing mitzvot.” “You mean I can start with little mitzvot and do bigger and bigger ones? I want to do that!” And I kvelled.

Montessori educators already knew it, and now I understand it too: when you invest yourself in the entire process, from start to finish, all work – of the hand, of the mind, of the soul – is meaningful.

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Repetition, rote, and religious fulfillment

I once had a conversation with a cousin of mine who asked me why I love the Passover seder so much. She was asking, she said, because she doesn’t enjoy seders at all (aside from the food and the family being together.) She finds prayers boring and unenjoyable and doesn’t understand how I could find fulfillment that way.

Here’s how I responded:

Imagine you have a friend who really loves line dancing. She drags you to a bar one night and tells you that you’re about to have an amazingly fun experience. You go out to the dance floor with her. The music starts and everyone is moving. You’re trying to watch people’s feet, and you succeed at copying their steps, but you’re lagging behind everyone and you keep bumping into people when you turn the wrong way. You’re trying to get with the beat of the music, but you don’t know this song and hearing the beat seems to take more effort and concentration than it should. You shuffle along as best you can, feeling stupid and uncoordinated. You can’t wait to get off the dance floor. When the song ends you’re out of there, with no intention of coming back. Your friend, on the other hand, really enjoyed herself and can’t understand why you didn’t have fun, too.

Prayer and ritual are the same as any other activity. If you don’t have the basics down pat, you’ll never be able to enjoy it fully. People seem to accept that you need to practice for years if you’re going to really enjoy playing an instrument in a group, and that you have to learn the steps and then practice them before ballroom dancing becomes an enjoyable pastime for you… and yet somehow people expect to step into a synagogue and have a transcendental spiritual experience. What’s more, when spiritual fulfillment fails to materialize, they blame the religion, the synagogue, and the language rather than their own lack of study and practice.

Yes, I get a kick out of the Passover seder. I love it. I love the words, the melodies, the symbols. I love them because they’re familiar to me, and I love them because of what they express. The Hallel section (aka the long part after the meal that most people just skip) puts words in my mouth so that I can use them to express my personal thanks and praise to God. I’ve been hearing those words since birth. In grades 1 and 2 we practiced excerpts from the haggadah for weeks so that we could put on a model seder in our class. I’m 32 years old, and we do two seders a year, and that means I’ve heard the entire seder at least 64 times, not counting all that practice in school and my attempts to learn my Grandpa’s melodies by tape recording him and listening to it repeatedly.

When people criticize their Jewish education they often cite rote memorization as a major reason why they hated it. Sure, being made to memorize words in a foreign language without any explanation of their meaning feels useless. But why is the instinct to eliminate memorization rather than to increase understanding? Both are important, but you have to know that all the understanding in the world won’t help you line dance if you don’t learn the steps.

Montessori education understands this principle. K’s classroom is full of activities that one could call “pointless,” like the one where you have to cut a strip of paper into squares by cutting precisely on the printed lines. Wouldn’t everyone love to go straight to sewing and collage-making? Probably, but they’d be disappointed by their results. I can tell you as a crafter and a quilter that being able to cut precisely on the lines is essential to making a good-looking product. Basic skill development is essential, and we jump to the end activity at our own peril.

Will my children have the comfort and facility with Jewish prayer that I do? I don’t know. Our school is less “religious” than the one I attended, which means that instead of reciting prayers every day they do it twice a week. I do know that at the age of 4 K already knows the entire (long) blessing over the Sabbath wine. She’s heard it every week since her birth which puts her at… well, upwards of 200 repetitions. One day, I hope, she’ll be able to stand and recite the blessing fluently while feeling the awe and sanctity of the words.

Our job, as parents and educators, is to give our children the skills to function in the world and to find fulfillment. When it comes to religious education, we’d do doubly well to remember that.

Demystifying Montessori – part 3

The preamble:

A few weeks ago Montessori Dad and I attended a parents’ information breakfast at K’s school. The topic: “Your tuition and the economics of eduction”, or as we termed it, “why our school costs so damn much”. It gradually turned into a discussion of how to attract more students, which in turn became a discussion of what makes us different from the other Jewish day schools in the city. It dawned on me that even some of the parents with kids in our school really didn’t seem to understand that it’s not just another private school – it represents a significant shift away from the average educational model. If parents of montessori students don’t understand that, why would we expect anyone else to?

I came home on a mission – to figure out what the average person knows or assumes about montessori. I turned to Facebook and posted the question in my status. Four friends were kind enough to answer. I want to use their comments and questions as a jumping-off point for a bit of an explanation about Montessori – what it is, what it isn’t, and why I’ve chosen it.

Disclaimer – I am writing about montessori from my point of view. I am by no means an expert, although I have borrowed some books from the library and I do intend to read them :p Please take everything I say with a grain of salt. As Mr. December always says, “trust but verify”.

So, how does the actual teaching and learning take place in a Montessori classroom?

When you walk into a Montessori classroom, you’ll see something like this:

There are child-sized tables and chairs which seat various numbers of children, the classroom is broken up into several smaller areas by low shelving, and the shelving is home to numerous trays and boxes filled with objects and tools. These trays and boxes contain the basis of the curriculum, the Montessori materials.

(Quick sidenote: the materials are grouped into different areas that correspond to curriculum areas, but this is just to provide a sense of order and facilitate locating the materials. The kids are free to take the materials to any place in the classroom while they are using them.)

There are a few different curriculum areas, and the materials are grouped accordingly. The curriculum areas are:

  • Sensorial – in which the children learn to differentiate shape, size, weight, length, pitch, tone, colour, etc.
  • Math – in the youngest classroom this begins with number recognition, proceeds through the introduction of zero, and ends somewhere around the division of four-digit numbers (with no remainders).
  • Language – letters, phonics, writing, grammar
  • Sciences – a lot of zoology, biology, nomenclature, nature study
  • Social Studies – map puzzles, types of water and land formations, international flags, etc.
  • Practical life – skills such as pouring, spooning, washing (clothes, dishes, hands), cleaning, polishing, etc.

There is also a curriculum area called “grace and courtesy”, but I’m not going there right now.

Anyhow, each tray or box contains all of the materials needed to complete one activity from the Montessori curriculum. If it’s something that involves liquid, it will not only contain all of the requisite pitchers/bowls/cups but also a small sponge for cleaning up spills. When a child chooses a material, she also takes either a placemat or a floor mat. All of the work is contained in the area of the mat, which helps the kids to delineate their workspace. Everyone knows not to walk across a mat.

When it is time for a child to learn a new lesson, the teacher will invite the child to work with her. The teacher then demonstrates the proper use of the materials, step by step, from taking the work off the shelf all the way through the task to cleaning up and putting it away. Then the child tries the activity.

The teacher watches, but doesn’t correct – she doesn’t need to, because the materials are self-correcting (a very basic example – in one pouring activity, the child must fill a small jug to a black line, then pour from that jug into two glasses up to the red line on each. If the water isn’t at the line, or if some water has spilled, then the child knows that he has to try again). If the child asks for help, the teacher will model some strategies or demonstrate the task again, but otherwise she is a silent observer for the child’s first use of the material.

After the initial lesson, the child is free to choose the same material as often as he wants, as repetition cements the learning.

What are the other kids doing while the teacher is working with one child? Why, they’re working on their own tasks. The group-friendly tasks (division, for example, or some of the language and geography materials) might be presented to a few kids at once. Also, older children sometimes work together with the younger students to help them cement a recently presented skill.

So… yes, the children learn from experiencing a task, and from touching, seeing, lifting, carrying, hearing, and sometimes smelling the materials. But it’s not a “trial and error” kind of experiential learning. Rather, the youngest kids (ages 2.5 – 5) are using what Montessori termed their “absorbent mind” to learn a structured sequence of actions that gives them the skills and knowledge they need.