Maria Montessori’s story of the explosion of writing in her school in Rome in 1911 is one of the most inspiring and instructional stories of the potential of learning and education to work hand in hand (because they very rarely do). Montessori had about seventy small children between the ages of three and seven in her care. They were living together every day in what she would later called Casa dei Bambini (The Children’s House). This was a space where the world had been made to fit little people. Where the obstacles of a world created for fully grown adults had been removed, and the true nature of the child had been revealed. Fixed desks were removed. Timetables abolished. Curriculums rendered obsolete. Reward and punishment found to be irrelevant. In their place not chaos, but a simple educational method designed to build a bridge between the child and his or her environment, one step at a time.
The story of writing illustrates one of the unique contributions of the Montessori Method. And it began. like all of her methods, with an analysis. The first question was “what is writing?” or what are its basic elements:
1) the grasping of the pen or pencil
2) the control of this pen while making marks on a page
3) the connection of certain shapes to their corresponding sounds.
4) the analysis of words into their constituent sounds
5) the formation of words out of their constituent sounds
These are the elements of writing. And it is these that were taught or “presented” in her school. Writing itself was not taught.
I just find this very intriguing. To think that one could teach the basic elements of a skill, but do nothing further to make the skill itself emerge in completion. Just one day see it arise fully formed and perfect. The student as surprised as the teacher. I think if I were to create an ideal in education this would be it: the parts are taught (without effort) and the whole emerges spontaneously.
So for each of these five elements of writing we have five possible lessons, or what Montessori calls presentations.
1) a series of cylinders with knobs which can be replaced and removed by the three fingers of the dominant hand. Each time a cylinder is grasped the correct grip of the pen is reinforced.
2) a set of metal shapes which can be traced and coloured in with different coloured pencils.
3) a set of wooden blocks with letters in sandpaper which the two fingers of the dominant hand trace and learn to associate with the corresponding sound.
4) various games like I-Spy which make one aware that words are made up of smaller sounds.
5) the writing of words using a set of wooden letters which can be moved around and used to create words and sentences.
Montessori placed these in her environment and gave the exact and carefully constructed presentation required for introducing each activity. Each activity is presented with the correct analysis of movement. Slowly. One movement at a time. The hand hovers over the cylinder. The three fingers grasp the knob. The cylinder is slowly slid out of its hole and placed gently on the table…and the reverse.
The one day a miracle: All the children were up on the roof terrace playing a game with the letters, when one child took a piece of chalk and wrote “hand” (in Italian). A shout: “I can write!” and suddenly the rest of the children are crowding around to see, and then quickly testing their own writing ability. With amazement and joy they realise that they too can write. The following weeks an explosion of writing. On every surface, on blackboards, floors, loaves of bread,…anywhere and everywhere. And not one of them suspecting that they had been taught to do this. A natural and spontaneous emergence.
Imagine a musical education which proceeded in this fashion. Where the preparatory work was presented in simple lessons, and the business of music was left entirely to the spontaneous efforts of the learner. This ideal is the basis of my Montessori Guitar Method. For beginners at present this appears in two forms: a book which presents the basic elements of classical guitar playing one at a time, and a series of presentations using physical materials which present the basic elements of classical guitar playing one at a time. The former requires no teacher, while the latter requires a teacher who knows how to give that unique thing called “a presentation” – a simple demonstration which is the essence of all Montessori lessons.
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