The other day, I had the great pleasure of observing at a brand new Public Montessori School in Memphis, TN. Libertas Montessori School has been opened for not quite 9 months. 95% of their children live in poverty. In case you aren't familiar with this, children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds face incredible challenges. One challenge that's been studied a lot is their diminished exposure to vocabulary.
At lunch time, I sat at a table with a few children and opened the healthy lunch one of the teachers (Carly Riley, also known as Dobby the house elf) made me. Among the dishes Carly prepared for me was half an avocado with the pit still in. This was like a bowl full of diamonds before the children. One after another, they approached me and asked, "Are you going to eat that?" And they'd touch the pit still sitting in the avocado.
So here was an opportunity to share my knowledge...yippee!! We spoke about the skin and pit (like an orange with seeds) and the flesh (mashed up for guacamole) and our relationship began. In that moment, they knew that they could look to me for knowledge. I had to file away the need to give them a grace & courtesy lesson about not sticking their fingers into someone's lunch and join them in their curiosity.
This tiny little interaction revealed the glorious and fragile nature of the absorbent mind. Young children are curious, open-hearted, and courageous. They are driven to answer the question, "What is this world?" As they went to sort their leftovers into the compost bins, they had to stop by and engage with that foreign object I brought into their world. They had no fear (or inhibitory control). Their interest in learning about the world trumped all else. It is easy to loose sight of that truth when a child with a runny nose and snot on their hand touches your lunch!
Some of the children who stopped and poked my lunch had an IEP. One had a profound disability. So, how they framed the question varied. But the underlying need to discover the answer was the same. It was like the rest of the cavernous cafeteria went dark and a spotlight shown upon my avocado. They had to discover what that thing was! And interest drives learning.
Children are driven to learn about the natural world. They just ooze curiosity and fearlessness as they encounter every terrifying little bug and slimy thing in the dirt. But when children live in dangerous neighborhoods, their families have to keep them inside in order to keep them safe. They may not even want them looking out the window for fear of what they'll see. If you drive around the neighborhoods where your students live on a Saturday or after school and you don't see anyone playing outside, this may be the reason why.
So at Libertas, they wisely place a strong emphasis on the outdoors. I'll have to write about their permaculture program in another post to do it justice, but here I'll tell you about the natural playscape they've created. In a hilly nook between two wings of the school you'll find trees, stacks of large sticks, hanging tires, rows of stumps, and plenty of beech nuts that have fallen to the ground. At recess, the children are free to play with everything the natural world provides: sticks, dirt, sand, leaves, you name it. And, yes, you read that right, the children play with sticks.
Now for many of us teachers, this is a big no no. There is often a culture at schools where we are afraid a child will get hurt if they play with sticks. So, we may have a "no picking up sticks" rule on our playground. If your school has such a policy, I suggest you reconsider. I mean, I once saw a survey of the top 10 toys of all time and number one on the list was, "the stick."
Anyway, at Libertas, the children were sword fighting and swinging and wacking logs with sticks and not one child was injured. But they all came in joyfully exhausted from recess. The teachers were watching and if anyone crossed a line, a simple "Uhh hummmh" from a teacher stopped the offender dead in his tracks. Nobody was shamed by having their name called out in front of the group. If somebody was throwing sand in the sandbox, the teacher "Uh hummhed," the child stopped still, the teacher discretely and quietly reminded the child of the rule and told him he couldn't play in the sandbox anymore today. Problem solved. Clean. Simple. Done. For the elementary child, you may want to help them negotiate but for the younger child, it may be best just to set the boundary and move on.
If you have students who don't seem to be engaging with school work, who seem to lack a spark for learning, you may just find that their interest lies in the world outside the classroom. I say get them outside and get the outside in. Take them for nature walks and bring along little cloth bags where they can store their found treasures. Share those on a sharing shelf in the classroom. Bring the treasures back outside and return them to where you found them as a natural part of your nature walk routine.
You might also want them to get up close and personal with all the little critters that lurk around your room. Keep an empty terrarium on your shelves right next to a small tray with a paper cup and stiff piece of paper. When some bug finds its way into your room, capture it and relocate it to the terrarium. When you go outside, take the terrarium and release your guests into the great outdoors. (Thanks again to Carly for sharing this way of coping with no direct outdoor access for catch and release.)
I think what I'm trying to say is that a tiny little thing like an avocado at lunch or an ant in the classroom can unexpectedly open the door to a child who is utterly guarded. Nature does that. We just need to let go the worry of the snot on the avocado and embrace the question. Pick up that stick and shout out, "Avant Garde!"