A Note from Suzette
Maria Montessori is universally renowned as a pioneer woman physician who also became an outstanding educational innovator. We incorporate many of her principles in our teaching – the introduction of many practical life skills, concrete sensorial materials to teach abstract concepts, and our approach to reading for young children.
The world knows Maria Montessori primarily through her very concrete academic materials, but few are aware that behind her educational efforts was her continuous desire to reform humanity, to uncover the innate loving nature of the child: “Education should no longer be mostly imparting of knowledge, but must take a new path, seeking the release of human potentialities… If education is always to be conceived as a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man’s future. For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual’s total development lags behind?”
Spirituality does not have to be religious. Jean Crasso Fitzpatrick writes, “The word spiritual refers to an awareness of our sacred connection with all of life. Our spirituality is our opening to one another as whole human beings, each different and precious, and our exploring how we can truly learn to love”. Aline Wolf, educator and author of Nurturing the Spirit in Non-Sectarian Classrooms wrote: “Spirituality implies a … oneness with the universe”. This means that every act of carelessness, indifference, hatred and violence towards nature and towards other human beings is actually an act against our families, our culture, and ourselves. Therefore spirituality summons us to the highest of human virtues, such as love, caring, generosity, responsibility for our actions, forgiveness, companionship and openness to one another. It leads us to sharing rather than accumulation, to cooperation rather than competition, and to peace rather than violence. We incorporate these core values into our curriculum. We ask ourselves how we can create age-appropriate activities to make them realize that they can help make the world a better place for all. This is done in a manner that they can understand and relate to, while sheltering them from the terrible tragedies and appalling conditions that are all too common in our world. The following are ways in which we encourage them to become aware of others, and sensitive to problems on which they, however little they might be, can have a positive impact. We study nature, plants, and animals. We read stories in which cooperation and compassion are essential elements, and then discuss them. Through role playing using puppets and small dolls we help children to recognize and cope with their problems. In this manner they see that other little children may be dealing with the same feelings.
We want our school to be not only an extension of your families, but also a window on the world that will encourage the growth of empathy in all our young children. We start simply, by making them aware of their classmates as people, and of the possibility of doing something good and kind. Each day at snack we have them join hands and sing “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand,/Make this world a better place if you can.” Teachers give lessons on the meaning of those words.In September each class makes a charity box, painted and decorated by the children with pictures of animals. We add the children’s contributions to our annual donation to BARK, a Brooklyn animal hospital and shelter for abandoned pets. We explain that they are helping animals that are sick, and have no homes. The children relate to animals. They are happy to have a positive impact, helping feed, shelter, and treat stray pets.
The children also learn about helping people. We collect gently worn clothing and like-new toys for disadvantaged children served by Room to Grow. We also contribute to orphanages in Africa. We teach the children how to include each other in their play. Exclusion occurs because young children are just developing a sense of empathy: we cannot rely on their gradually emerging feelings of compassion to prevent hurt feelings. We gently intervene. We wish to sow and nurture the seeds that will blossom into kindness and empathy.
A very important step in nurturing either one’s own spirit or a child’s spirit is to prepare an environment where stillness can be cultivated with some regularity. It is almost impossible for one’s spirit to thrive in the constant confusion and hubbub of daily life. Some special places and special times must be set aside for quiet – for one to be open to one’s inner voice. We play a game called The Silence Game, in which silence is a special challenge, a goal to be achieved. The Silence Game is never used to try to calm children when they are loud and unruly. Rather, it is to be presented when they are working well to show them that they can extend their self-control. Together, with everyone’s cooperation, they have the power to create silence. This exercise is first introduced early in your child’s school year. To begin the exercise, a teacher displays a signal that has already been introduced to the children. As each child notices the signal he or she stops working, keeps silent, freezes in space, trying not to move a muscle. A calm quiet gradually extends itself throughout the room and children hear the usually unnoticed sounds of the clock ticking, or the refrigerator humming. After a few minutes of perfect silence, a teacher calls one child’s name in a barely audible whisper. That child slowly tiptoes to where the teacher is standing, proceeding so quietly that no one else will hear him or her moving. This continues until all the children have been called. The teacher removes the silence signal, and the children return to their activities. The silence game lets children experience the peace of stillness, and the joy of self-control. It also teaches them that silence is not automatic in our lives; we have to make an effort to attain it. At home this may mean turning off the TV at certain times during the day or setting aside a special area where our ears are not assaulted by the usual urban din.
Another way we try to nourish spirituality in our school is to strive constantly as educators to be alert observers of ourselves and our effect and upon the children. Ailene Wolf writes: “Both Maria Montessori and Rudolph Steiner, founder of the Waldorf Schools, wrote extensively about how young children, with their whole beings, virtually soak up everything in their environment, including the behavior and attitudes of the principle caretakers.” Montessori called this unique way of learning the “absorbent mind”.
Regarding this phenomenon, Rudolf Steiner has said, “…what you tell a child, what you teach him, makes a comparatively much weaker impression (than) what you actually are, whether you are good and your kindness is manifested in your gestures, or angry and temperamental, which becomes exhibited through your manner, is the most essential thing of all for the child. He is the sense organ reacting to everything to which he is exposed”.