Monday, June 17, 2013

Geography of Israel

     In a regular Montessori environment, there's an area of the room dedicated to Geography. In it, one finds globes, puzzle maps, pictures of foreign countries and people, land and water forms, etc. It's a sequence that spans the entirety of the 3 years the child spends in the Primary (ages 3-6) classroom.
     The very first presentation is done using a Sandpaper Globe, on which the water is painted blue, and the land is covered in sandpaper.
     Very simply, the teacher touches every inch of the surface proclaiming, "This is land" or "This is water" as appropriate. Upon the regular course of lessons, it would lead to exploration of continents and countries, both geographically and culturally.
     Likewise, in our Sunday School environment, we have an area of the room dedicated to Geography. It's much less extensive, focusing mostly on Israel as it was at the time of Christ, but we begin in the same place - with the Sandpaper Globe.
     After showing the child all of the "land" and "water", we bring their attention to a tiny red dot on the land: "This is Israel." There's so much land, and Israel is just a tiny little dot. 
     Soon after, we introduce the child to the raised map of Israel and then to the Puzzle Map of Israel.
All of this work is meant to give the child a place to put the geographical references spoken of in the Gospel Readings. Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem from Nazareth in Galilee. Christ is born in Bethlehem of Judea. Christ goes to the city of Jerusalem. Christ is baptized in the Jordan River. With this work, we begin to show them that these places are real places, that Christ truly walked here among men as man.

The Sandpaper Globe.
Israel is marked with a tiny red dot (though I think it's a little south of where it really should be).

The Relief Map of Israel.
The Relief Map of Israel with picture labels for Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth. Children as young as 3 - 4 can tell you which is which.

An upside-down (sorry) picture of the Puzzle Map of Israel.

The Puzzle Map of Israel with written labels for Nazareth, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. An extension of this work is labeling every part of the map (i.e. Jordan River, Dead Sea, Perea, Judea, Galilee, Samaria, Sea of Galilee, Mediterranean Sea). 


Icon Figures

Two of the areas of the Catechism environment, Parables and Life of Christ, involve icon figures used as visual aids while reading the children the parables and the major events of Christ's life from the Gospels. 
These icon figures are made by isolating individual figures in an icon, printing them out, and mounting them on a thick, flat piece of wood carved to imitate the shape of the saint (or Christ) being mounted.

This particular icon figure is of Christ standing in our model Jerusalem. We use the model Jerusalem and our icon figure of Christ to take the children through the events of Holy Week beginning with Palm Sunday and leading up to the Crucifixion and Burial of Christ. (Don't worry, we do the Resurrection too!)

We love using these figures because they connect the work back to the icons the children see in Church every time they go. A couple years ago, a class of mine was lent a huge icon of the Nativity that was taller than most of the children. After we had done the Nativity work with them, showing them with movement how Joseph and Mary travelled, how Christ was laid in a manger, how the angel came and how the shepherds went to worship Christ, the children began to recognize the figures in that large Nativity icon saying things like, "There's the shepherds!" 
It was beautiful how they began to connect with the icon as more than a picture. That's a difficult thing, especially for those of us who come from Western mentalities, where what you see is what you get, and everything seen is meant to be understood. Icons have a mystical quality and presence in the event they convey, and that's something that is inexpressible yet tangible in our experience. By using these figures as opposed to some kind of model people, we give the children an opportunity to put their hands on what they hear and see and to begin to understand that a festal icon is more than a group of people, it is kairos, an eternal moment in which we see revealed a confirmation of our Faith.

I'll take advantage of being at the course at Hellenic College for the next few days to take some more pictures of the newer icon figures that have been made since last year. Hopefully I'll be able to post them by the end of the week.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


First, an apology - It’s been a while. During the last year, I moved, got married, got a new job, became briefly nomadic, etc etc etc… My new home parish unfortunately doesn’t have the space for a preschool catechism classroom (Sunday School for older children currently happens in the Church or the Narthex – I can’t very well clutter up those spaces with all of my bookcases and whatnot), so I’ve been away from the actual practice of catechism since I left Florida. But in God’s time, perhaps that will change soon enough. All the same, I’ve still been working at a Montessori school and interacting with the children, silently wondering what’s going on in their little minds and hearts.
Right now, I’m back sitting in a classroom at Hellenic College/Holy Cross with my husband Paul, my friend and teacher Catherine, and a few others who have come from near and far to learn about Montessori education and what it has to do with our Faith. Every time I come here, I learn something I thought I knew. The people who come bring their experiences and their knowledge, and they continue even now to shape our work – and rightly so, as our Faith is an organic experience for each of us. My husband, drawing upon his recent education at St. Tikhon’s Seminary, has given us beautiful insights in the theology behind what we do with the children, and two women have come from Orthodox preschools, bringing with them their experience with and love of children and our Faith. With the inspiration they have given me, I hope I’ll be able to create an environment again soon, but in the meantime, I’ll wax poetic a little and share some pictures. Enjoy.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Be Like the Little Children

Back when I was a catechumen, I nannied for a family with 4 daughters (now 5).
     One evening, I was standing in the living room talking to their mother when the youngest at the time (she was 2 1/2) came up to me and started pulling on my arm. She was saying something, but I don't know what it was.
     Finally, I pulled myself away from her mother and knelt down next to her to see what she wanted. She placed a grey Crayola colored pencil on my forehead and said, "The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit." She then did the same on each one of my hands. And that was it.
     I think we can all agree that a 2 1/2 year old child is incapable of rationally understanding the concept of being a catechumen and the theological significance of those outside of the Church needing to receive the gift of Holy Spirit in order to become a part of the Church.
     Maria Montessori tells us 2 1/2 year olds are still working with an unconscious mind. They don't deliberately recall information in order to make connections between situations the same way an older child or adult capable of logical, rational thinking can (more of her discussion on the unconscious absorbent mind can be found in her book The Absorbent Mind*).
     So what compelled this little child to do what she did? How did she know my status in the Church and what was still needed? A spiritual father would be able to answer that question much better than I, I'm sure. For me, remembering this experience drives home all the more that inner spirituality of the child. It's there from birth, from conception even, as St. John the Baptist and St. Sergius of Radonezh's examples of spiritual exclamation in utero would suggest.
     To me, this mystery of the child's spirituality it is one of the greatest mysteries of our Faith. Maria Montessori wrote an entire book dedicated to what she called the Secret of Childhood*, a common theme in all of her writings. She observed the children engaging in activities, especially those with spiritual elements, and becoming completely lost to the world. In it, but not of it. Become like little children indeed.
     I don't mean to place Montessori on a pedestal next to our spiritual fathers, as if she has the all the answers to understanding and educating our children's spirituality. How could she? How can anyone, really, for that matter.
     I do believe that she cannot be matched in terms of her understanding and response to the physical and mental development of the child. However, she was only ever able to see half of the big picture of the spiritual component. What she observed is human life. God created all life, therefore I see no reason her observations can't be considered valid. However, her conclusions do not carry the entire weight of the Faith. That, in my opinion, is what Catherine has rectified in her work, inasmuch as any lowly man is able. How important that is, now in this world, for us to be able to educate all components of our children's development with constant reference to our Faith. And how beautiful.

*The Absorbent Mind and Secret of Childhood are two of Maria Montessori's classic works. I would suggest reading the Secret of Childhood if you're more interested in anecdotal explanations of her work, and The Absorbent Mind only if you're feeling very philosophical and open to wading through seeing her interpretations in light of her historical time period (1870-1952), her status as the first female doctor in Italy, the fact that she met with a lot of resistance in her work and thus felt she had a lot to prove (which she did), and the fact that her works were in Italian so we also have to consider the translator's interpretations of her work as well.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

2012 Clergy Laity

     Last week, I had the pleasure of assisting Catherine Varkas in exhibiting her course, Orthodox Christian Spiritual Formation, at the 2012 Clergy-Laity Congress of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

     We enjoyed meeting a number of priests, educators, parents, and representatives of Greek Orthodox churches from around the country. They shared stories of their children and their parishes, relating both the good and the bad that they've seen, and they shared with us in our desire for an approach to teaching the Faith to our young children that truly transmits the beauty and essence of our Faith.
     Our particular approach to transmitting the beauty and essence of Orthodoxy to the young children (3-6 year olds) is based pedagogically on the methodology and observations of Maria Montessori and Sophia Cavaletti, theologically on the teachings of the Fathers of the Orthodox Church, and has been refined over the years by Catherine's dedication to the child and to the Church.
     My task at the congress was to relay who Orthodox Christian Spiritual Formation is, what our curriculum includes, where we're located, etc, of course, over the course of the few days we were there, I began to feel like something of a broken record, as I pretty much recited the same little speech in some fashion to everyone who approached us.
     It went a little something like this:

"We're a teacher education center that provides teacher training for Sunday School, preschool, kindergarten and homeschool teachers. It's a hands on, experienced based approach to teaching the Faith to young children. This curriculum is a three year curriculum for 3-6 year olds that basically groups preschoolers and kindergartners together and works in the context of a once a week Sunday School classroom or daily preschool or homeschool setting. We offer a course at Hellenic College every June. It's 90 hours spread across 10 days, and it teaches how to interact with the young child and how to give every presentation that the 3 year curriculum contains. If there's a demand for it in your parish or metropolis, we can also come to you."

     If the person engaged in a conversation with me, I usually got around to sharing how it's also a catechism for adults because in order to teach the Faith, especially to young, impressionable children who retain everything they hear and see, you have to really know what you're talking about beyond what you're actually saying.
     For example, in my previous post about the boy who wanted to go to the Mystical Supper, if the teacher hadn't understood that the Holy Communion works outside of time and is truly the Mystical Supper, she wouldn't have been able to respond to his statement the way that she did. He wouldn't have come to that realization and understanding that brought him so much joy.

     I also liked to share how when I work with the children, sometimes they end up giving me a much deeper understanding of the Faith than I was trying to give to them.
     And wouldn't you know, it happened at the Congress.

     There was this 3 1/2 year old boy who was just smitten with all of the materials we brought. He came over and at first was a little hesitant, so I told him he could touch what he was looking at. He started kissing the icon figures on the table, and asking about the angel. We chatted a little bit about Pascha before he went over to the model Holy Table.
     I was all set to show him what was there and give him a sort of abbreviated lesson because of course, I was the adult who knew everything, and he was just some 3 1/2 year old kid who didn't know what anything was and was just going to start playing with the materials if I let him be.
    However, he quickly reminded me that I know a whole lot less than I think.

    Before giving me the chance to do much of anything, he turned and raised the Holy Gospel, opened it and read it, and set it upright on the Table. He "lit" the candles, he scooped up his imaginary Prosphoron and placed it in the Holy Chalice, he poured hot water (which we didn't have represented on our model Holy Table) into the Holy Chalice, he mashed the Holy Spoon down into the Holy Chalice (the same way the priests do) and brought everyone Holy Communion, he brought around the Blessing Cross for everyone to kiss, and on and on, motioning every little detail he could remember from the Liturgy (which amounted to much more than I could've remembered), all without saying a single word, before putting it back exactly the way he found it.
     And all the while, he was absolutely sincere and solemn. He wasn't playing a game. He wasn't silly or disrespectful. He was engaging in something, experiencing something that everyone on the outside just couldn't fully see. 
     It was beautiful, and it relayed the intensity of the child's inner life in a way that I could never convey with words.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Everybody Knows How to Love God

A few days ago, I was sitting in a classroom at Hellenic College and listening to Catherine Varkas give a lecture on Baptism, the nous, and the spiritual nature/development of children.
     She started by simply quoting the Philokalia, "The spiritual faculty, the nous, of the baptized infant knows God through immediate experience".
    We all sat and tried to absorb that concept, contemplating the many ways it presents itself in our Church and in our work.
    This is a lecture I've heard more than once, as this is the third time I've sat in on the Orthodox Christian Spiritual Formation course, but every time I hear it, I receive it differently, with different impressions, observations, and questions.
     This time, I internalized a spider web of connections between that quote from the Philokalia, Father Meletios Webber's book Bread & Water, Wine & Oil, the letter Montessori dictated on her death bed, and something a 3 year old once said to me.
     Father Webber writes that "fragmentation within the human personality is observed essentially as the division between the mind and the nous".
     Montessori urged teachers on her death bed to "protect in [the child's] development those natural energies implanted in their souls by the guiding hand of God". Protect. Not enlighten. Protect.
     I once left work (a Greek Orthodox Preschool) during my lunch hour to run up the street for confession. Since I was going to church, I changed into a dress, and when I came back, I didn't have time to change again. Of course, the children noticed. One in particular was very curious about it, and the following conversation occurred:
          "Miss Anna," she asked, "why did you change your clothes?"
          "Because I went to church."
          "Why did you go to church?"
          "I went to see Father for confession."
          "What's confession?"
          "Well, I talked to Father, and he told me how I could love other people better and how I
           could love God better".
    Here she stopped and looked at me with a confused look on her face before saying,
          "But everybody knows how to love God. You know how to love God, Miss Anna."
     The child isn't fragmented. Not like adults are anyway. Her mind and nous exist in harmony within her. She comes to us this way. She experiences God before she is even old enough to recognize anyone other than her mother, and even her she recognizes only by sensation. She is a child, and yet she inherently loves God so much that she can't fathom that someone wouldn't know how. And that is indeed something that I desire to protect in every child.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

I Wish I Could Be There

     Earlier this year, we did a presentation of the Mystical Supper work. We sat down on the rug as a group, and listened while one of the teachers read about the Mystical Supper from the Holy Gospel.
     After she finished, she took out 13 icon figures - 12 disciples and Christ, a table, and small models of a chalice and loaf of bread.
     As she read the Mystical Supper passage again, she moved the icons around the table while the children sat watching intently. There were 15 children, and not a single one made a sound.
    Even after the conclusion of the presentation, everyone sat stilly and silently for a few moments before one child, a 5 year old, stood up and somberly said,
     "I wish I could be there."
   The teacher walked over to our Holy Table work (used to teach nomenclature for all the items we see in church), picked up the model Holy Chalice and said to the child,
      "But you are there! Every Sunday, you get to go to the Mystical Supper."
    I wish I had a pure enough heart to approach Holy Communion with the kind of joy that illumined his entire being upon hearing that.

The first time the teacher reads the Gospel passage, she reads it from the Holy Gospel itself, with a candle lit and making the Sign of the Cross before and after. The second time, when she reads while moving the icon figures, she uses this Scripture Booklet, which contains only the passage that is needed for this work.
That way, when the child does the work, those that can read can read the relevant Scripture to themselves or ask an older child or teacher to read it for them.