By Pat Thompson, Lower Elementary Teacher
There has been a strange noise happening in our classroom at different times of the week lately and the sound has been unmistakable: absolute silence! You can almost hear the children breathing. No teacher is telling them to be quiet.
One thing that makes a Montessori classroom different from any other kind of classroom are periods of what Dr. Montessori called “spontaneous activity.” Spontaneous activity or work is just what it sounds like: it may start from a lesson or through a child’s own interest in a certain work and “sets fire” by contagion. Work builds on excitement and soon the classroom is buzzing. This has to be the most thrilling part of teaching for me when I witness this phenomenon in my classroom.
Teaching is very hard work, but it seems almost too easy when we do what we were trained to do: “Follow the child.” One day recently, our Lower Elementary One class was talking about the Winter Olympics. Because of the children’s excitement and interest, my co-teacher, Elsa Libby found a website where we could download the flags of those 88 countries. The fire was set. We brought down the flags of the world from LE2, children began looking up the flags’ history and colors in a new book Shelley had just bought for the library, they began coloring the flags in, we rolled out a giant map of the world and third years, Zander and Max helped children find the country of their flag so they could place a gold star on it. Elsa hung up the flags on the web of “finger crochet” the class made in the fall that hangs above our circle area. At the end of the day, Elsa and I just looked at each other and said, “What a glorious day!”
Another exciting time that causes spontaneous activity in our classroom is during Writer’s Workshop. Recently, the children gathered in a cluster around me to get a mini-lesson. They were addressed as “authors” and came together to learn, at one particular session, about a creative way that we could entice readers to our stories through the first words of the story. The children heard the first paragraphs from the books: The Young People’s edition of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne, and Mathilda by Roald Dahl. After listening, the children all agreed that they would love to read each of the books because the first paragraphs enticed their readers to open the door and enter their stories to find out more. After the mini-lesson, there was a “turn and talk” where the authors told their ideas of a story beginning to a friend so they could write it down with ease. The writers scrambled off with their journals to write their stories’ beginnings. On that day, some children did not want to put their journals away when we had to get ready for a special class they usually want to go to. The children are writing more and more each week and are anxious to have their stories “edited” so they can publish them.
On interviewing the other two Lower Elementary classrooms, I found out about some great spontaneous work going is on there, too. Alexa and Margie tell me that the children of Lower Elementary Two have been working on animal studies. The children began to put together a study of Arctic animals on their own and developed “Who Am I?” cards for them that will be a permanent part of animal work in LE2.
Pattyann and Caren say that Lower Elementary Three’s third years have doing independent ancient Greek studies that they are putting together into projects. They are going to present this work to the rest of the classroom.
Who drives whom? It is a question that we teachers often ask ourselves. Our children need directions and parameters—and we give it to them as well as guidance. But the best kind of learning takes place when work is innovative, independent and experiential—a keystone of what we try to do everyday at Inly School. Dr. Montessori instructed teachers to NOT give children every detail of a lesson, but to “strike the imagination” so that the children will want to dive into the exploration of their world to find the answers for themselves.
Yes, we do give assignments in the Lower Elementary classes. We have high expectations for the students and lessons in math, reading, geometry, grammar, word study, comprehension, history, geography, and the science areas, but students are also allowed to make choices as to when and how they will do their work—not whether or not they will do it. And, honestly, many times, there is so much to get to, so much work, so many activities, there just isn’t enough time for choices. Then—when we are least expecting it—an idea catches fire. There is a hum of activity as work begins to happen, things quiet down and you can almost hear the children breathing. But, it isn’t really silence—it is the sound of the true love of learning taking place in front of our eyes.