Don’t we all want a dynamic classroom environment in which there is a great variety of work going on? Where the children are creating, researching, building, collaborating, thinking, learning, questioning, imagining, and following their passions? Yes! That IS what we want, an environment where our students are excited to learn and grow.
In a new environment, it takes time to build up to this kind of ideal, but it is definitely possible. As guides, we have to create a culture of work in our environments. In my environment, the students refer to it as “a beautiful work classroom”. Beautiful work does not mean work that meets some artistic standard, rather it is big work decided upon by the student and pursued with thought, care, deliberation, and an investment of time.
How can we, as the guides, make this happen? This is where the artistry of teaching in the Montessori Method comes in!
- Give the lessons. Give the lessons, give the lessons, give the lessons! Without the beautiful lessons, there will be no beautiful work. The psychological characteristics of the second plane child include “Imagination”. Use this and give the lessons, tell the exciting stories, spark the interest, ask the thoughtful questions, and then sit back and let it happen.
- Set an expectation for work. Freedom in the classroom environment means freedom to WORK. Not working should not be an option. How they work, where they work, with whom they work, and what they work on are the freedoms we offer. In a very young classroom, we may have to give examples of what follow up work to a lesson could be, but should be careful to not impose our ideas upon a child. We all know their ideas are far superior to anything we could come up with. After a lesson (on Types of Lines, for example), one could say, “I wonder how you could practice this lesson? Perhaps you could make a book? A scroll? A Poster? You could sew the lines and make a pillow! How about using toothpicks? Q-tips? Yarn? Popsicle sticks? Or, you could bake pretzels and position them as lines!!” Yes, I have had students bake pretzels and make lines & angles. In fact, food & cooking are great motivators for big work. We have had giant cookies for Parts of a Circle, layered cakes for Layers of the Earth, and even Pizza to practice fractions.
(Formation of the Universe Cookie, Four-Corners Cake, The work of Water Canyons)
- Provide the materials for big work. If we want big work going on in the classroom, we have to provide the materials for the children to work. Large rolls of plain paper, huge pieces of graph paper, colored paper, colored pencils, gel pens, markers, paint, cardboard, glue, sequins, yarn, tape, book binding materials, popsicle sticks, canvases, glitter, “special” and beautiful paper…all these must be available to the students at all times (not just for art lessons) so they can think, create, and work outside the “pencil-paper” box.
- Provide uninterrupted time for big work. If we have given the lessons, set expectations for work, and provided the materials, the students will be working! It is at that time that we need to step back, let them work, and protect that work time. If they are engaged in constructive and productive work, let them do it, no matter how long it takes. The uninterrupted work cycle is specifically for this, to let the students do their work without interference. The things they learn from working on their own are invaluable and cannot be taught: independence, responsibility, collaboration, compromise, precision, revision, perseverance, dedication, and satisfaction of work done independently. The beautiful work that come from this time is a bonus!
(Types of lines sewn on fabric, Sentence Analysis Folow Up)
Easy, right? We can all have environments in which work like this is going on if we avoid the “Big Work Obstacles”.
- Big Work is messy! Creative, inventive, collaborative work is messy. Let them do it. It is not unusual to look up and see a disaster! Have faith that the lessons we have given on how to clean up a work space will jump into action once the work is done. If they don’t, give those lessons again!
- Big Work is expensive! All those materials required for their work can be expensive. Hopefully we all have healthy classroom budgets and can make those materials a priority, just as we do the Montessori Materials. If not, students can always bring things from home for their projects. They can also hit the recycling bin as many treasures can be found there.
- Big Work takes time! As guides, we want to make sure that we give all the lessons we need to and sometimes it makes us uncomfortable to go too long without giving a child a particular lesson. Have faith that their work is just as important as the lesson on “Adding Fractions with Unlike Denominators” is!
(Ireland Research Follow up, Tissue paper River, Paper-mache Grand Canyon)
Nothing brings me greater joy than those moments when I have no one to give a lesson to! You know those times when you look around the classroom and you see that amazing hum of working students? Where groups of children are working together on creative and inventive projects that display their understanding of concepts learned in a way that writing them down with paper and pencil never could. That is what I strive for…an environment that is the opposite of a “paper & pencil” classroom.
Shahnaz Currim is an Upper Elementary Guide at Keystone Montessori School in Ahwatukee, Arizona. Holding AMI Primary & Elementary Diplomas, she has been teaching in the Valley of the Sun for 26 years. An avid hiker and nature lover, Shahnaz also loves to read, garden, travel, and spend time with her adorable Boxer pups.