Thursday, June 21, 2012

Orthodoxy in the Montessori Classroom

          A Montessori environment is concrete. It's experiential. It's full of beautiful things for the children to touch and explore, and so is our church. The children get to kiss icons, light candles, smell fragrant incense, and participate fully in our church using all the faculties of their bodies.
          In the Montessori 3-6 year old classroom, the children frequent activities known as Practical Life activities, which are indeed exactly what they sound like.
         They are based in the practical actions made in life such as pouring water, squeezing sponges, scrubbing tables, tying shoes, dusting, etc. Anyone who has ever observed a Montessori classroom has surely seen children doing these things, and perhaps, if no one had ever explained it to them, were befuddled by the seeming futility of the activities. I'm sure many parents peek through windows of Montessori classrooms and walk away thinking, "they want $15,000 a year to let my three year old run around pouring beans?" Because of this impression many have, I would be remiss not to mention that the actual point of these Practical Life activities isn't to aimlessly occupy them. These materials exist to bring the young child's awareness to his hands, to their ability to move, and his ability to master their movements. They allow him to focus intently on his work and thereby develop concentration. He has to decide whether to cut the flower stems and place them in the vase before or after filling the vase with water - a choice. He has to consider his entire body and a complete sequence of events while trying to complete one seemingly simple task. I could go on and on about Practical Life, as what I've mentioned barely begins to cover the vast importance of the most central area of the 3-6 classroom, but I'm not an expert on the Montessori Method and this is supposed to be about Orthodoxy in the Montessori Classroom, not pitchers and shoes.
          Well, actually, it's about both because Orthodoxy is incorporated into the Montessori environment most simply by means of Practical Life. For us, our Faith is practical life. Our Faith is not simply theoretical and conceptual, it is concrete and experiential. We practice it every day. And our children can experience and practice our Faith in any way we make available to them. One child cleans a window, another an icon. One scrubs a table, another polishes a cross. A child who has learned to scoop, pour and level makes leaven as described in the Gospel of Matthew. Another plants a seed after hearing the Parable of the Scattered Seed. And yet another practices making the Sign of the Cross over and over, meticulously staring at his fingers until they start to come together just right.
          All of these scenes I hope to paint for you as I continue working with the children and am able to share with you what they share with me.

The children polished a silver icon of Panagia until there was not a single trace of tarnish remaining. We took the icon from the work and hung it on the wall, replacing it with some other miscellaneous silver for them to polish instead. They went and took it off the wall, completely disregarding the tarnished cups and pitchers we'd given them. 
They just wanted their Panagia.
One of the twenty or so children in our Sunday School room lighting a candle as she comes in after church.
After having heard the Parable of the Leaven, this 3 year old child works at combining 3 measures of meal and 1 measure of leaven. He'll later set it aside and observe it as it rises.

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