A Montessori Adult Practical Life Lab

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In 2008 and 2009, the National Association hosted two weeklong workshops in the Montessori basis of CGS.  The first was focused on the role of the adult, the second, which was held in Nashville, on the nature of the child.  I was only able to attend the second one, but this workshop caused a paradigm shift for me and changed the entire way I live in the atria with the children.

In addition to panel presentations led by catechists and Montessori experts, challenging and informational readings, and group discussions, the second workshop also included a three hour experience in an Adult Practical Life Lab.  Designed and set up by Sherri Mock of Houston and Marilee Quinn of Kansas, the lab was comprised of two areas: a children’s area set up as a Montessori practical life, art, and nomenclature space and an adult area with hands-on activities meant to deepen our understanding of Montessori methodology.  We were individually greeted at the door to this space by Marilee and told that this room had been set up just for us as a gift and that we were invited to explore either as a child or as an adult. We could go back and forth between the areas within as we wanted.  If we had any questions, we could quietly find Marilee or Sherri (who was seated in her “directress chair” at the other end of the room), either of whom would be waiting to assist us.

For two hours (a typical Montessori class period) we explored.  Next to each material in the children’s area was an 8 ½ x 11 sheet mounted on colored construction paper; this sheet had a photo of the restored work and step by step instructions on how to do the work.  Spooning, pouring, polishing, sculpting, making baptism booklets, walking the line, all sorts of activities were available to us.  One of the points lifted up was the need to provide a complete cycle of work for the child, so, for instance, once I had polished a silver snuffer, I learned that I needed to wash out the buffing cloth in a clothes washing area, hang the cloth to dry, and then replenish the cloth etc myself from a supply area provided for the children.  This was deeply satisfying!  Although most of us started by moving rapidly from one work to another, trying to see them all, within about 20 minutes, most folks had settled to a single work and had entered into deep concentration (flow?), almost as though entering into centering prayer.

In the adult area, Sherri had provided sequencing exercises which assisted us in learning to analyze the order in which pouring or polishing or spooning or nomenclature exercises should be introduced to the child.  With regards to polishing exercises, for instance, glass polishing came first because of its solid, soap tablet; it was followed in succession by silver polishing which used a pudding like polish, wood polishing with its liquid polish, and finally brass polishing with its toxic liquid.  Nomenclature exercises on the other hand began with first naming concrete objects (objects of the altar), then linking two-dimensional pictures of the objects with the objects, succeeded by linking written labels with the objects and then linking labels with the pictures, before finally moving on to three part and two part tray works leading the child to reading and writing the names of the objects independently on his own.   Another areas sequenced pouring activities beginning with wrist development using dry pouring with small carafes filled with large objects such as popcorn, to carafes with small objects such as fine pasta or rice, and only then introducing dry pouring with pitchers which requires both wrist and finger coordination.  An entire sequence of development from equal dry pouring with beans in carafes to a full preparation of the Eucharistic cruets with wine and water was outlined.  I don’t know why this was so earth shattering; it’s so obvious once you see it.  But I suddenly realized that an entire foundation for child development, allowing me to support a child’s success and joy with our liturgical pouring works, had been missing in my atria.

In addition, Sherri had provided hands-on materials which allowed us to explore the developmental needs of the 3- 6 aged child, to identify the characteristics of an environment which support normalization or which raise obstacles to normalization, to learn to recognize spontaneous concentration, and many other foundational elements of Montessori methodology.

A Catechesis of the Good Shepherd formation for adults wishing to work with children ages 3-6 always includes group discussions and presentations on Montessori methodology: “Who is the 3-6 Child?,” “What is the Role of the Adult?,” the “Theory of Practical Life,” etc.  Since becoming a Level 1 formation leader, I have always followed these morning discussions with an afternoon adult lab for the level one formation participants like the one which Sherri and Marilee provided for me in Nashville.

At first the formation participants are impatient (“What does this have to do with my spiritual formation?,” you can hear them think), before something captures them, and they sink into contemplation of a work.  Once they have been called into concentration on any one work, the entire atmosphere of the room changes to an experience of deep peace.  As one participant said this last week here in Amarillo, “I wondered what pouring beans had to do with the Bible study I had been promised.  But everything for the rest of the week built up from that moment.  By the end of the week I knew that the preparation of the chalice rested on that child pouring the beans repeatedly for days and knowing the deep satisfaction and independence gained from that experience.”

I should say that I normally leave a couple of works in the lab incomplete on purpose, perhaps missing a tool of the work or the instructions for it or including the instructions but not providing any of the materials for a work.  This allows the participants to experience the insecurity of a child being faced with a work which he does not know how to use, or finding a work he wants to do but not having the materials with which to do it.  I do this for a sneaky purpose as will be discussed below.

After the participants have worked in the lab for two hours I quietly and privately invite each individual to take a break (bathroom, drinking fountain, etc) and ask them to come back in ten minutes.  Then, like Sherri and Marilee, I remove the chairs from the work tables and form a circle with them for a group debriefing session.

When the participants come back into the room, many are upset!  “I still wanted to work,” I’ve heard adults cry!  So we talk about that.  Based on this experience, what can we hypothesize about what it is that the child wants upon entering our atrium?  To immediately sit in a circle and listen to an adult talk at them or to get to their work?  This starts the ball rolling in a discussion about the rhythms of an atrium period, about the need for each material offered in the room to be complete, about how having someone hover over her shoulder inhibited the work of an individual participant, about the role of adult, about fostering the independence of the child, etc.  This lasts for about 45 minutes and allows participants to deepen from their own experience the ideas of Montessori methodology that were hitherto only intellectual notes left within their minds from the morning’s discussions.  What were simply abstract facts learned are now concrete experiences felt.  It is, I think, quite powerful.

One caveat: I find that the adult exercises which lay out the model of Montessori’s thoughts about the normalization of the child can bring up powerful emotions in some participants.  On rare occasions, a person who was abused as a child simply becomes overwhelmed by emotions when confronted with Montessori’s ideas abut normalization and has to leave the room.  Likewise, occasionally, a parent projects upon herself or himself guilt for not allowing freedom of development for his or her own children.  I am now prepared for these experiences, but I did not expect them when I first started including this lab.

I sincerely hope that the National Association of CGS hosts additional Montessori Essentials workshops in the future.  The work of the adults and children in the atrium all benefit from our better understanding of the Montessori foundations upon which Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi created their scriptural and Biblical works which so nourish the children in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

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