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Charlotte Mason: Volume I Part V:XV

XV. Arithmetic

Mason’s approach to arithmetic is pretty common sense, concrete, and focused on reasoning.

She emphasizes word problems with small numbers, and using manipulatives such as dry beans. For multiplication, for example, she would have the child find 4 x 3 by setting out three rows of four beans each and count them. This is exactly how Montessori does multiplication, too. Children should be able to use the beans for all of their math problems, and then to do mental math with imagined beans, before being asked to do math in writing. They can even use the beans to set up a whole addition table such as 1 + 1, 1 + 2, etc, and likewise for subtraction.

Mason doesn’t work on the notion of the decimal system until after all of this bean work. Her method is similar to Montessori’s, but she is critical of Montessori’s bead material, arguing that it puts more importance on the material than on the ideas it represents.

Here I prefer Montessori and the bead material. It so concretely gives the idea of tens. There are single beads for units, bars of ten beads strung together for tens, squares of ten ten-bars for hundreds, and cubes of ten hundred-squares for thousands. Children learn to exchange, to understand place, that a number in the tens place is a number of tens, and so on. Montessori also involves number cards, so that kids can work with symbols and relate the symbols to the bead material, even before they can write figures well. Continue reading

Feeling mean

I wrote a little book for Amy today. It’s by no means perfect or even well-thought out, but it might be food for her thought.

She has been showing quite a mean streak lately, as well as accusing / complaining about others being mean. She’s been having conflicts at school and often not being able to solve them, especially with one friend in particular.

I suppose we tend to think about how to help kids deal with meanness from others more than we think about how to help mean kids.

How do we best support kids who feel mean and do mean things sometimes?

How do we maintain a positive image of the child with hope and confidence, remembering that meanness is not an inherent quality but a response to some kind of hurt or need?

How do we handle things when children get into a conflict, either with us or with another child?

I’ve been thinking about time and space, and about enzymes.

First of all, conflict isn’t a bad thing. All relationships, except the most superficial, will experience conflict. The process of working through conflict resolution can be deeply empowering and bring new depth and strength to a friendship, as each participant learns to peacefully pursue their own interests and to kindly consider the interests of the other, and to eventually arrive at a mutually satisfying solution.

It’s tempting for teachers and parents to try to solve children’s conflicts as quickly and smoothly as possible. We find them disruptive, a hindrance. We don’t often have the patience for the long and tedious give and take that conflict resolution often requires. We’d rather impose our own solution, or avoid the problem by separating the kids.

Sometimes separation is necessary, when one or both children is not in the frame of mind to participate in problem-solving. They may need time and space alone, or they may need time and space with a supportive adult or another friend, something to restore their sense of warmth and safety, goodwill, flexibility, willingness to assume positive intent, and desire for peace and friendship.

Other times separation might inadvertently teach children that conflict is bad and must be avoided, that they are incapable of resolving their own conflicts, and that they need the authoritarian intervention of an adult.

From what I remember of high school biology, an enzyme works by creating and holding a space for a reaction — a chemical process — to take place. Without the support of the enzyme, the reagents might never stay close enough long enough to finish the process.

When a teacher or parent can play the role of an enzyme — keeping the children close, supporting them in their efforts, guiding but not directing their process — kids can really arrive at good solutions. It might take a loooong time, with a lot of setbacks and stalemates along the way. It’s worth sticking it out.

It’s not easy work. No one likes to see a mean or violent streak in a child, especially their own child. We want to push away meanness and mean people, condemn them, require them to stay away until they can somehow become kind again. When we do try to stick with a kid who’s struggling with meanness, we might be tempted to think we’re enabling them, reinforcing the meanness, letting them get away with it. It’s hard enough when kids are being mean to one another — sometimes it’s even harder when they’re being mean to us — especially if they’re quite persistent!

I’m leaning on the Hand in Hand listening tools in my efforts to help Amy with her meanness struggle.

I have a listening partner for myself, so that I can work through my own feelings, triggers, upsets about her and the mean things she does. Feeling heard and supported helps clear my head a bit and make space, to restore my sense of her goodness and my desire to be on her side.

I have special time with Amy every day. I set a timer for twenty minutes, and for that whole time I’ll do anything she wants to do, as long as it’s safe. (I give myself permission to not do things that are really upsetting for me — that’s a different kind of safety issue — but I try to really be open and willing to try anything as much as I can.) Special time shows her that she’s important and interesting, that I delight in her and take interest in her interests. It builds safety and warmth and connection.

I stay-listen when she’s upset, whenever I can. I stay close, with warmth and confidence, while she cries, thrashes, yells, bangs, and so on. If I have to, I hold onto a hand that’s trying to hit or throw something. I occasionally murmur some reassurance that I’m staying with her and not leaving her, that she’s safe, and that things will be good again. It is sometimes amazing to see how she emerges from this sort of thing with renewed grace, cooperation, and peace.

I’m still working on the other two tools, which are more challenging for me.

One is play-listening, which is a sort of combination of things that bring laughter and things that involve physical closeness. Pillow fights, chasing games, piggyback rides, that sort of thing. Laughing is another great way to relieve emotional tension. Physical interaction reaches the limbic, emotional part of the mind — much more effective than exhortations and lectures, since kids simply don’t have access to their rational minds when they’re upset.

The other is setting limits. I’m okay with setting limits around most things, but so much of what’s challenging with Amy is verbal stuff. With an ordinary limit, like “No, we’re not going to have a snack right now; dinner will be ready in half an hour,” it’s relatively easy to first listen to how the child wants a snack, set and hold the limit that it’s not the proper time for a snack, and then listen more as the child responds to the limit. That second listening can be play-listening, stay-listening, or something else. But when you’re setting a verbal limit, like “I want you to answer me with respectful words and a respectful voice,” it’s hard to know how to hold the limit AND listen to the response. I think with verbal things the listening is more important than trying to enforce the limit. It’s possible to remain firm about expecting respect, while listening to rude responses about that expectation. But it IS challenging.

There are other good resources for this kind of work to support kids who struggle with meanness.

Here’s a great story about how two girls solved a conflict with the support of their teacher, and how the results are so much bigger than a solution to the particular conflict.

And now that I’ve finished reading Children who are not yet peaceful, I have some more quotations to share.

Author Donna recalls the conversation with three boys, one of whom was interfering with the work of the other two. The boys were too angry at first to deal with the problem directly, so everyone moves into third person:

“He’s annoying, and sometimes really mean…”
“What does he do that’s so annoying? Describe it to him clearly, and then say what you’d like instead.”
At times like these I speak in the third person of a child who has not become assimilated into the community or who has chosen a role that doesn’t benefit him or the class. I work gradually toward getting the children to communicate directly to one another. I have found that direct address can be harsher than the third person and too strong for a struggling child to bear in the beginning. Third-person discussion allows a child to stand aside and listen to both the anger and the love coming his way. It allows him to look at himself through the eyes of others without bearing the brunt of direct confrontation. My use of the third person slows down the process and makes time to introduce sensitive reflection on motives and needs, responses and remedies. (98)

“A well-informed, ever-vigilant parent with a full and valid set of childrearing ideals can produce a very neurotic child. ‘No, you can’t spend the night with Johnny. You know he watches too many violent TV shows and eats too much junk food. We don’t approve of his family. You’re lucky we don’t have computer games in this house, and we never let you have toys of violence.’

‘You want to spend the night with Travis? Let’s have him over and make homemade pizza and a big salad. Shall we have Danny and Louis over too? We can play board games tonight. Tell them to bring their roller blades for morning when it’s cool.’ This dad has set the stage for the kind of life he knows is best for his son without preaching to his child or judging others. His son will think it’s more fun to be a part of his family and easily do without the harmful things other children have” (113).

(I have a lot of growing to do in this kind of thing!)

One thing I find rather harsh in this book is the author’s attitude toward the other teachers at her own school and other schools. I wonder why there isn’t more support for the adults to make the same kinds of growth the kids are supported to make.

“Now I wished I had never sought the counsel of this teacher… I left unsatisfied and unsure that I could rely on the weak assurance I had received. Approaching a child’s development of responsibility, honesty, and truthfulness as a process is more difficult for some teachers than for others. This teacher had struggled to overcome an authoritarian personality and a confrontational manner that were both cloaked in a charismatic charm, making it difficult to recognize and address them. Why had I, by seeking advice, presented this teacher with something at which success was so unlikely?…

“Some teachers find it extremely difficult to work in a developmental way, when their personalities, education, and socialization have prepared them to work in the traditional way. Some teachers cannot make the paradigm shift, regardless of the passion fueling their desire and effort to do so” (178).

That’s pretty discouraging! What if I’m one of those people who can’t parent in a truly developmental way, even though I really want to learn to do so? Surely there are ways to provide for and support the necessary growth and change?

“Because of their galvanizing charge, I consciously avoid using certain words such as ‘truth,’ ‘lie,’ ‘liar,’ ‘admit,’ ‘confess,’ ‘blame,’ ‘ashamed,’ and ‘guilty.’ I think of the child as being in process of developing a relationship with truth and of coming to distinguish it from and prefer it to security, wishes, expediencies, and self-gratifications. Every experience a child has and every behavior he exhibits can be employed to assist him along his individual path of development, if adults use calm, clear thinking, deep respect, and loving feelings and are committed to an alliance with the child’s spirit…

“Everything a child thinks, says, and does makes perfect sense in the context of his own interpretation of his experience. For an adult to judge a child’s behavior harshly is to carve a chasm between the child and the adult. If the child attempts to leap the chasm and align himself with the adults, accepting their harsh judgments, he betrays the integrity of his interpretation of his own experience, placing the chasm within his own being. If, on the other hand, the child aligns himself with his own experience and rejects the adults’ harsh judgments, he begins living beyond the chasm and without the security of adult moral guidance. Or a child might exhaust himself straddling the chasm by feigning acceptance of adult judgment and pretending rejection of his own experience, all the while expending enormous energy holding on for dear life to his foothold in Self” (183).

Children who are not yet peaceful

On my current reading list — Charlotte Mason, Christian Proficiency, The New Testament and the People of God, soon I need to start the novel for book club, and — Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful.

Every once in a while, I come across a person who amazes me with their kindness, their intention and attention, their understanding, their compassion and respect. And I wish we could all be more like that. I wish *I* could be more like that. It’s really breath-taking.

Really listening — attending — observing — seems to be at the heart of it. I’ve seen this in many other places, too, such as Hand in Hand Parenting. How important, and how very effective, it is to truly listen to someone, with positive regard, and with hope and faith that whatever needs to change can and will change, and that there’s nothing that needs to be hurried about it.

I think the more people experience this kind of faithful support and listening, the more we are able to escape the grasp of our own internalized judgments, scorn and shame, and anxious urgencies.

Donna Bryant Goertz writes about how a Montessori classroom, teacher, assistant, and children can form an inclusive community. It’s not idealistic. It’s not simple and easy and always successful. It’s a lot of work, a lot of missteps, a lot of patience and faith.

There’s an introduction where she talks about the idea and benefits of an inclusive community. Then there are stories. Each chapter tells the story of some particular child who has some particular challenge, and how the classroom community broadens and deepens in its efforts to learn how to include this child, how to support and love this child, and in the process all the children benefit and grow in peacemaking, in compassion and respect and kindness.

In the chapters —

There’s lots of kids telling one another about how they struggle with one thing or another — how they are embarrassed when they find that they have been mean to a friend again, for example, or how hard it is to accept no when they really want to be with someone.

There are times when the teacher speaks openly of a child and his or her struggles — frankly, but without shame or condemnation, as well as without sugar-coating — in a way that draws other children in to support this one, and in a way that deeply assures the odd one that he or she is understood and respected, and that there is an intention to help.

There are kids who are clearly reluctant to come close and work with / help / support an eccentric kid. And how a teacher invites and entices them to this work, without shame or coercion, but through a confidence in the benefits, certain hope in the possibility of the others enjoying something about this child, and reminders of the others’ own struggles and how they have appreciated their peers’ support.

There are times when children are overbearing and controlling or withdrawn or destructive or meanly disengaged, and how the teacher and the other children learn to speak about these struggles with patience and hope, acknowledging what is going on, acknowledging the difficulties involved, and waiting and / or acting in ways that will work around it and help melt it.

Nothing is too hard or too scary. Nothing is forbidden. Nothing is sugar-coated or pretended to be more okay than it really is. The most subtle signs are understood and respected. So are the loudest and most inconvenient signs. Working WITH is the general rule, instead of opposition. It’s not permissive — but limits and boundaries are really seen (and presented, and received) as supports, as helps, as coming alongside, without judgment or shame or any sense of permanence or doom.

The book also reveals again and again the beauty and effectiveness of the Montessori prepared environment and the training of the teachers. There is space and time here for dealing — directly — with these most fundamental and crucial issues of relating to one another, without the constraints of a traditional school schedule. There are a variety of materials and activities that can help kids grow and learn and become themselves in so many ways. Crochet, for example, is not just about crochet — for many kids it is a door into concentration, or for calming down, or for organization.

I am a little uncertain about Goertz’s insistence against medication; I know that ADD drugs and the like are far too highly prescribed, but I don’t know enough to be sure that they’re never necessary or helpful. So far in her experience they haven’t been — sounds fantastic.

I’d also like to know how much the various available Montessori training programs (and the admin and support staff at schools) are equipped and equipping teachers for this level of relational work. Is this kind of beautiful support widespread in the Montessori world? How lovely that would be.

Some notes and quotations from the introduction (read the chapters to see more about how it gets fleshed out):

“[t]he children expand their humanity and redefine their civility to include the eccentric children, rather than labeling, hurrying, ostracizing, diagnosing, or medicating them” (6).

Eccentric children – those “whose behavior strikes us as eccentric, complicated, challenging, or confusing” – indicate how well the community is functioning, because they react more, and more overtly, when things are not working well (7). In this way their signals can lead to development of better functioning, which benefits not just them but everyone.

A good inclusive community does not make life simple, easy, without conflict, or marked by consistent cooperation and concentration. Living in inclusive community takes vigorous work.

It is good to “see all of the children in our classes as mirrors of our own inner lives and part of the group dynamic that we develop” (7).

Relationships can and should be part of the core curriculum. It is important to make time for working with such issues as obligation to others (Friendship to all, or only kindness / respect to all? Everyone works to support others, or only those who like such work?), relative importance of academics and social skills, what to do when someone is resistant, relative rights and consideration about things that might be annoying… “How loudly is it okay to sing while you work? Who should move if the singing becomes annoying? How do you know if someone is singing softly just to be annoying – and is that relevant?” (8)

In dealing with relational issues, “no child is blamed, and any problem is everyone’s problem. None of the children is ‘unmanageable.’ None of the children ‘has a problem’ or is a ‘difficult child’” (8).

Working on relational issues with children who require more time, attention, commitment, and finesse can lead to all the children learning that there are ways to negotiate conflict and settle things respectfully. Strife among children is not an inconvenient obstacle for a classroom, but an opportunity for growth for everyone.

No one child is ever put on the spot, called out, or cornered – no one is guilty or innocent, good or bad. Even a “good” label can lead to exclusive thinking – the “good” child feels she is better than the “bad” child, and is therefore only “good” in comparison to others, which leads to a more or less subtle reinforcement of division, strife, and misbehavior.

The children do better with emotional and relational skills when they are helped to develop and exercise them, instead of having conflicts solved or avoided by an adult’s fiat.

Again, discipline is something not handed down, but something developed inwardly through “deep concentration on chosen work” (10).

“Deep down, each child knows he is only as worthy as any other child. Casting some children in negative roles puts the very being of each and every child at risk. If even one child can be cast aside as unworthy, no child is truly safe. He feels keenly insecure at the ground of his being.” (11)

How the teacher handles relational issues teaches children something about how to handle relational issues – “either that children can learn the skills to work out their issues among themselves with respect, fairness, and care or that children must be controlled by an adult” (11).

(My own note — we need to treat teachers in the same way we treat the children, in the same inclusive and respectful spirit – no bad teacher, no difficult teacher, etc.)

And now I’m done.

Today was my last day playing a teacher’s assistant at the Montessori school.

If this is what I’m going to be doing next school year, I have a lot to learn.

I need to be really familiar with all of the materials in the classroom — where they are, what they’re for, how they’re used, what they’re called.

I need to accumulate a much larger classroom management toolbox, one suited to the Montessori way of doing things. How to be available to kids without intervening too much. How to help kids get to a working frame of mind. How to deal with the fact that there are more of them than there are of me. How to help develop and maintain a classroom atmosphere that lends itself to a good working flow. How to minimize cracks for falling through, whether it’s the less skilled or the more skilled or the ordinary or the different who are most at risk for neglect or insufficient support.

I need a thicker skin, and to remember that while there’s a job to be done, ultimately I can’t force anyone to do anything, and it’s not my job to control anyone.

Today I spent a lot of time again with the girl who latched onto me on Tuesday and again yesterday. I believe with all my heart that kids who ask for attention in any way really do need it — and that even when it seems they are pulling their neediness out like a hat trick, it’s because they aren’t able, in that moment, to think of a better way to get what they need. And yet… well, after a while I sure was tired of finding this girl by my side and feeling her hand slipping into mine.

I also spent a good bit of time with a young girl from another culture, whose English I have a hard time understanding. She speaks quietly and quickly, sort of abruptly, and more often in single words or short phrases than in whole sentences, so there is less context to help with the more difficult words. I tried to transcribe a story for her today, that she was dictating… as far as I could tell it was about peeing — and included some apparently unrelated words — and none of it seemed at all related to the horse sticker she’d put on the page. She’s little and quiet, and in these three days I haven’t seen her demonstrate much focus, but she’s got some fire in her and is more skilled with things than I thought she was.

The bulk of the rest of my time was spent trying to redirect the two girls playing “puppy” to choose and actually do any work. In a play-based preschool, it wouldn’t be a problem that they were crawling around the whole room, under and around tables — but it’s not what’s done in a Montessori class. The teacher suggested I have one of them just sit with me for a while — side by side on the carpet, doing nothing. The other girl found a willing accomplice and continued playing. The girl sitting with me just seemed withdrawn. The teacher had someone else in her lap, and it did seem for him to be a warm and safe place to get settled. Perhaps if I weren’t a stranger, sitting with me might have been warmer and safer.

At the end of the three hours, I had a renewed appreciation for this teacher’s calm steadiness — nothing unruffles her, even terrified screams from the bathroom and a bizarre cut from an ordinary shelf unit. (Or if things do unruffle her, she must have some excellent coping skills.) I’ve never heard her yell at a kid, and yet she’s perfectly able to set and enforce limits.

I suppose next week sometime the powers that be will want to discuss the experience — and next year’s possibilities — with me.

Day two

Today was better.

First of all, I was indeed able to make some warm connection with some of the kids who I’d started out poorly with yesterday. Two showed me the trinomial cube, for example, a material I haven’t had much experience with. I think they felt good that they knew something that I found interesting, and that they could help me learn about it.

Also, the regular teacher was back, and there wasn’t any unusual behavior or interruption in the morning, and I was less new to them all than I was yesterday.

The same girl shadowed me all day again. How do you manage such a thing? What would be both compassionate and respectful? How much time spent in devoted attention is appropriate? How much of a cut-off later is appropriate? How to navigate such a dance, considering all the others in the room…

Similarly, there were a few who just weren’t getting into a focused work cycle. In the middle of the day, I was taking a story dictation from one girl, and three or four other children were sitting nearby or leaning against me, watching and listening. This is learning, too, is it not? If my paltry presence gives them some sense of security and warmth, isn’t that worthwhile? Isn’t it good to honor that sense of needing physical / emotional connection? And while there, they’re still observing someone at work, and perhaps learning a little something academic in the process.

I failed at line-leading. The class across the hall was lined up seated in the hallway, many with feet extended in front of them, and I asked my teacher if we should line up behind this class instead of in the hallway across from them. She agreed, but as I started helping our students line up, leaving what I thought was a big enough gap, some kids from the other class got mixed up in our line. Then, as the other class left, the hallway opened, and for some reason (did someone say something suggesting it?) I thought we should move into the hallway, which apparently is the normal place for the line. It was a little crazy for a minute or two.

I failed at taking dictation — should have gotten a lesson first on how to write on this special paper!

And then I failed at discerning when to hold firm to a limit and when to be flexible considering a child’s desires and needs. One little one, who I have rarely heard saying more than a word or two, did not want to change from outside shoes to inside shoes — I thought this was a fairly hard and fast rule and so I offered to do it for her if she was unwilling to do it herself. This did not go over well. And the teacher told me that it was okay if she didn’t want to change shoes — that usually she does want to, but if she didn’t today that was fine. It is hard when you are working under other people, in a particular accredited system / philosophy / method, to know when the rules stand firm and when they bend.

I was surprised by how much time, at this point in the school year, some children spend apparently doing nothing while they have a work out. They may get distracted by a neighbor’s work or conversation. Or they may not know how to proceed, or may not want to. Maybe their brain is working on it while they look like they’re just dawdling. Or maybe they ARE just dawdling. Or maybe there’s no such thing as just dawdling. Where is the famous Montessori concentration? I thought it was supposed to happen even in this age group, even with the toddlers. What classroom practices foster concentration? What needs or desires might be working against concentration? How should they be addressed? How important is the concentration anyway?

I guess I’m a little surprised at the strength and pull of some social ties — kids that spend the whole day, two days in a row, perhaps all year long, just with their one friend. In a way I am pleased to see a school setting that honors their desire to develop such ties. In another way it does seem to be distracting. What does Montessori training and best practice encourage a teacher or assistant to do with such dyads, especially when they spend more time wandering and talking than working? Again… is it really important at this age to not be distracted, or to focus more on work than on friendship? I think of Teacher Tom and other play-based preschool programs where the only expectation seems to be to respect others and to be wise around risk.

In parenting, I’ve been increasingly learning about how to support a child who is upset. What matters is listening, and keeping safe. It’s not important to end the upset, by distracting, redirecting, isolating, reprimanding, exhorting, contradicting, or whatever. It’s instead important to validate, to hear, to mirror, to reflect — with very few words — the feelings that are being expressed, and to stay close, warm, and connected. And if there is any effort to hit, throw, or whatever, it is important to contain the child so as to stop such violence — to keep the kid, yourself, others, and property safe. To offer safe alternatives such as punching a pillow. And to do it all without exasperation or anger or scorn or shame. (It is HARD to avoid these sometimes; adults who care for kids need an outlet for their exasperation — an adult who can listen to them the way they’re listening to the kids.)

I’m also increasingly concerned about the motives we attribute to kids, and how that influences how we handle their off-track behavior. Do toddlers and preschoolers make bad choices from a place of informed and empowered authenticity? Do they consciously manipulate or rebel? Or do they generally act straight from feelings, impulsively, and lose impulse control when they’re upset or feeling disconnected, and show their sense of upset and disconnection by acting out? What response to their off-track behavior is best suited to their understanding and abilities, best suited to helping them behave better, more like their own true selves? I think the same kind of connected, empathic listening and warm limit-setting I mentioned in the previous paragraph applies to apparent disobedience or poor choices as well as to sadness, fear, and other upsets.

I’m interested in learning more how these insights from parenting can work in a school setting, especially such a respectful and compassionate one as Montessori. I’ve heard of Montessori schools that have adopted RIE practices for babies and young children; I wonder if any Montessoris have connected with Hand in Hand Parenting or other resources in the same natural, gentle, respectful childcare vein.

Anyway, that extended parenting tangent was inspired partly by a moment in class today, but it’s also something I’ve thought about while I’m a parent of a kid at the school. The moment — I noticed an abandoned work on a table, saw a certain boy working at the other end of the table, and thought, aha, his friend is probably the one who was doing that abandoned work. I’ll go find him and ask him if it’s his, and if so, if he’s done or not. But when I found him, he was hunched over in a corner, quietly crying. I asked if he was okay, his head shook; I offered a hug, his head shook; so I told him I would sit by him while he was upset. After a while, he got up and worked on something else, and not much later was back with his friend. I wonder if they’d had some kind of conflict.

I’ll close with little extra bits — we had an assembly today, to hear the band (one flute, one trumpet, one clarinet, three percussionists) and see the lower elementary’s story-play, and I tried to quickly peel and cut up four mangoes without injury and mainly succeeded (no injury, but pretty slow!)

One more day of this classroom experience — for this year. I wonder what next year will bring!