Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Learning New Things, and Finding New Places

Another October is passing by. It brought the bursting color to our leaves and now is taking them away. The mornings are dark, and the days are shorter.

College students are back from their Fall break, and it is time to begin to get serious about thinking about those term papers that are due at the end of next month. Of course, you'll wait till the very last possible moment to write them, and they'll arrive in your professors' boxes at 11:59.9 PM on the due date.

Then the next day in class, we shall have the sleepy, and the scruffy, and those who are begging for extensions and trying to lose as few of those precious *POINTS* as possible.

Please, write a good paper.

Seek the truth. Try to understand something. Yes, I know, the professor is obtuse and you don't know what the class is supposed to be about...but just look at what's there and find something real and grab hold of it.

Its your education. Stop blaming circumstances and other people. Roll up your mental sleeves and work with what you have. You will learn many things, and also you will begin to learn how to live. Wherever you are in life, reality is your teacher, and circumstances are the resources that are given to you so that you may grow as a person.

Circumstances can be strange and painful, but there they are, every day. So we engage them. We often do badly, but we learn from our mistakes too.

Right now, this "retired" professor spends his days in the office at the John XXIII Montessori Children's Center, where his wife directs the elementary program. One might say he's a sort of "writer in residence," although he does his own research and writing at his laptop (and he is working on developing some "new media" platforms for the Center...eventually).

He is also a kind of "resource person," who gives small lessons on religion or history, helps students with research, works with maps (he's always loved maps), reads stories to the primary level kids, answers the phone, fills in wherever an adult is needed, etc.

The most important thing he does is just be there, frequently going out of the office and into the "classroom" (oops, wrong word; the word is environment--and that's exactly what it is). He sits in a chair, reads a book, and lets the children "bother" him. They find ways to learn all sorts of things from him.

These are not the circumstances he expected for himself at this period of his life. But they are good.

The professor is learning about what it means to learn...and to teach.  He sees his own children, and others, in a learning environment, where they look at what's around them, find real things, grab hold of them, and discover paths of understanding--ways of seeking the truth.

If they want to learn about plants, they can read about them. But they can also plant something, tend it, and watch it grow. Math is involved with tangible things. Numbers are strings of beads that they can see and touch and combine. Shapes are...actual shapes! And there are spheres, and cubes, and cones of various sizes.

There are rocks, and there are jars with minerals and all kinds of things to compare and contrast tangibly, visually, engaging the senses. They learn how something smells by actually smelling it! Maps are of every sort: maps that show terrain, maps in puzzle form with pieces corresponding to country borders, and many globes that model various facets of topographic or political geography.

One thing cannot be found here. There are no grades. There are no *points* to be accumulated as external rewards. Progress is monitored according to the interests and capacities of each child. Learning is not about discovering and mastering the tricks necessary to win a prize. Learning is about reality; its about experiencing and understanding reality.

The children grapple with real projects, using their hands and their minds. They make mistakes and learn from them. All of this happens in an exquisitely organized environment in which everything has its proper place. The directress guides individuals and groups of children in the various works, gives lessons, and "keeps order"--not with a stick, but by helping the children to learn what is required of them if they are to work together.

And they also do plenty of reading and writing. They even learn handwriting, with pens and pencils, on real paper.

The Montessori environment is a rich and beautiful place, where children are guided in a learning experience that engages the senses, imagination, mind and heart. The environment is realistic for the child. This method actually works! Discipline is built into the order and the ethos of the place, and that includes a healthy awareness of fallen human nature, but not a morbid preoccupation with it.

It is a beautiful place, and there's room in it for anything interesting...

...even an old, rheumatic, "retired" professor. :)

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