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1110 College NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
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Holidays the Montessori Way (Practical Life for Families)

Elizabeth Topliffe

by Elizabeth Topliffe, Head of School

November 1. That is the day the radio began blasting holiday tunes into my vehicle, lists started appearing, and more physical space was given to store aisles dedicated to the “holidays”. You’ll find plenty of curmudgeonly material available bah humbugging about how the holidays have crept into every corner of our lives, earlier and earlier each and every year.

 This post is not one of those.

Instead, this post is a celebration of the gifts of Montessori education during the holiday seasons of October through April (yup. 6 whole months).

 I should say right up front that we don’t have big holiday lessons or celebrations in our classrooms. Even as an adult, I still vividly remember the day a woman dressed as a witch, with a broom, arrived in my sixth-grade classroom, serving apples with a cackle. It turns out it was Donna’s mother, our “Room Mother” (with apologies to the fathers), who had arrived to run our classroom Halloween party.

 I remember it as my first all-out, holiday party after moving to a new neighborhood and new school where holidays were celebrated in grand style. Birthdays were also celebrated with cake, treats and lots of sugar in the classroom. In between, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s, and even Easter made an appearance in that classroom. I think that first party remains so vivid because it stood in stark contrast from the regular classroom routine. When I think back on it as an adult, I cringe for the parents who received hyper, unfocused, and nutritionally-deficient children at the end of the day.

That just isn’t the Montessori way. You will find a dearth of parties and only subdued references to the holidays of the season. Before you accuse me (and others) of being “fun-suckers” who have taken the joy out of the holidays, I thought I’d share why we take this approach.

 Our classrooms offer our children the gift of time, the gift of routine, and the gift of peace. Adding holiday parties would minimize those gifts.

Holidays are cultural and family events, and we do not presume to overlay our traditions over those of your family. Our students in Infant/Toddler through lower elementary understand holidays through the lens of their own experience and their family experience. Even if they have been told and can recite the stories behind these holidays (religious and otherwise) the importance of the event is their time with their family and their family traditions. Developmentally, they are not ready for the underlying stories and histories of the holidays, and we therefore ask questions like, “How do you do it in your family?”

 For our older students who are developmentally ready for deeper conversation, we approach them with questions rather than answers. How do you imagine it happened? Why do you think people do it this way? What do you enjoy about this tradition? What do you wish would change? What have you read? Are there other perspectives? Like all things Montessori, we do not presume to have answers or even something to teach. Instead, it is our hope that we can foster learning and help ask really great questions.

For us, one of the richest gifts of our school is the importance of varied and vibrant traditions within our community. Students are encouraged to talk about how their families celebrate holidays and to share the importance of family traditions with friends. Friends in our community have shared traditions like Diá de Muertos, Diwali, Christmas, Chinese New Year, Hanukkah, Eid Al-Fitr, etc. Just as we do not presume to overlay our traditions over family traditions, we likewise do not presume which holidays to celebrate.

That does not mean that ignore holidays altogether. If you were to observe our classrooms, you would likely notice that work may take on colors, shades, and shapes of the seasons, with golds and reds in the fall, silvers and blues, reds and greens in the winter, pinks and reds in February. Art shelves often become filled with materials for students to express holiday traditions through art projects and creative expression. Pouring and transferring work will also reflect these new shapes and colors.

Books on shelves will likely reflect holiday stories, poems, and songs. These stories and poems are largely impressionistic in nature, designed to evoke feelings of generosity, kindness, sharing, and peace. Most Montessori schools, including ours, welcome book recommendations and donations!

 In some classrooms, students will bring the energy of gift-giving into the classroom, making special gifts for family members and one another. They often direct these gifts, making something unique and personal.

Personally, I’ve come to love the pace of holidays in a Montessori classroom. In the midst of holiday parties, gatherings, family feasts, and the harried pace of our larger culture, our classrooms are places of peace and refuge.

 As a parent, you can extend these gifts into your home with some of these more practical ideas:

1.     Share the work—Many family traditions include large meals and gatherings. Invite your children and adolescents to share in creating menus, cooking dishes, setting tables, and decorating your home. These a great opportunities for them to experience the holidays as a time of coming together rather than being relegated to a separate part of the home while the adults have stress-filled moments.

2.     Ask how they want to feel and what is most important to them—Rather than asking your children what they “want”, ask them how they want to feel and what is most important to them. This is a great opportunity to hear from them about the importance of time with family, traditions, and slowed-down moments. For older kids, ask them how your family can work together to achieve this goal.

3.     Invite hand-made gifts—If gift exchanges are part of your family tradition, suggest to your children and family that you make gifts together for friends and family. Handmade soaps, cookies, and wood-working projects are excellent containers for the love and joy of the holidays, and they have the added bonus of the gift of creative time.

4.     Emphasize the care of the environment—In our classrooms, we emphasize the importance of caring for our environment. For younger children, this may mean keeping a room clean, sweeping floors, or cleaning mirrors. For older children, this can mean regular responsibilities for rooms and larger chores. The holidays are wonderful times to create and build on the tradition of caring for our homes. Just be sure that children have appropriately sized tools (ideally, stored together in an accessible location), and any aids they might need due to their size (like aprons and step-stools).

5.     Practice grace and courtesy—The holidays provide innumerable opportunities to practice manners: writing thank yous, offering hospitality, and even shaking hands. As a parent you can model these behaviors. Even better? Take time during a non-stressful, non-busy moment to talk about your expectations and give a lesson for these courtesies.

 Above all, practice kindness to your child, to yourself, and to all those you encounter. That is the highest and most beautiful celebration of any holiday!

 The gifts mentioned above offer your child the opportunity to feel valued as a member of your family. They offer opportunities for confidence-building. They offer your child peace and security. Opportunities like these allow your entire family to know each other and yourselves better and at a deeper level.

Best, these gifts offer you a moment to slow down as well. You might even create a new tradition!

You likely won’t see many construction paper holiday crafts coming out of our school. But, you will find a great deal of respect for your child, heaps of love, and an outpouring of grace and acceptance.

 Happy Everything!

 

On Time

Elizabeth Topliffe

Does anybody really know what time it is?
— Chicago

By Elizabeth Topliffe, Head of School

Parents often wonder why we’re so regimented about start times at our Montessori School. I can assure you that we aren’t maniacal time-keepers or rigid people! Rest assured. The reason is that it is important to your child, and we take that pretty seriously.

Three Hour Work Cycle

To begin, I need to back up to Maria Montessori’s research. When observing children, Dr. Montessori noticed that children (even very young children) reach deep levels of concentration and learning. It was during these deeper periods of concentration that children were able to work with materials and lessons to achieve mastery, returning to the concept or materials with repetition until they became satisfied with their work.

All of us are familiar with the feeling of satisfaction for a job well done. For adults that comes in many forms. It may be figuring out what has been holding us back and using our morning to solve that problem. Or, we might complete a writing project or presentation. Or it might be something physical, like cleaning up a tree that has come down in the yard. It is just so gratifying to see our efforts pay off.

Children feel this same sense of joy and gratification when they master something or complete a project. Dr. Montessori noticed, however, that children did not reach this state of concentration (many of you would call it “flow”) until they had worked through some shorter, easier tasks, and then experienced a state of “False Fatigue”, which is a period of restlessness that sets in about 1 1/2 hours into the work cycle. The same is likely true for adults. We settle in to our days and then get to work on our own work cycles.

A Children's House student works with the 3 chain

A Children's House student works with the 3 chain

As a parent who has been late my fair share of the time, it is easy for me to think that my daughter didn’t miss much when she was late. Maybe she missed only the time to hang up coats, chat with friends, etc. She is pretty adaptable and can jump right in. I assumed that she hadn’t missed out on anything important—the meaty stuff.

Unfortunately, I was wrong. We can’t skip the small stuff. A child arriving at school will still take time to settle in and put away their belongings. They will check in with friends. They might wander in the classroom to find work that intrigues them. If they cannot find work, they might receive a short lesson. A child often completes one or two smaller, easier tasks not long after they arrive, repeating something they have already mastered. They will likely have snack.

These tasks are what allow the child to settle in to the concentrated work. Children (and adults for that matter) need to do those things first in order to reach that state of flow or deep learning.

An elementary student deep into the timeline of life

An elementary student deep into the timeline of life

When we’re late, we take time away from our children’s deep learning. If we’re ½ hour late, our child may not reach that state of flow at all during the work cycle. It doesn’t matter how much effort and energy we put into a carefully prepared environment, if a child is not there to receive the work, it is wasted. We are pretty attached to our students, and we do not want them to miss out on this important time!

It is also important for parents to say their goodbyes somewhere other than the classroom. Saying goodbye at the door or front-office allows children the dignity of caring for themselves. It sends the message that you think they are capable, resourceful, and whole. They receive that message from the staff and the entire environment of the school, and this is a way you can reinforce that. It is an act of dignity and agency to walk into a work environment on our own, without emotional assistance.

Sarah B. and her sign-in sheet

Sarah B. and her sign-in sheet

Montessori schools, teachers and administrators really do understand. We know snow storms, dentist appointments, lost shoes, etc. happen. We get it. We know that sometimes being on time is a challenge. It is our hope to help you understand why it is worth some up-front effort to build some consistency in arrival.

An Invitation

Our work is to establish peace. The first step in doing so is to respect our work, the work of others, and to respect ourselves—our agency and our dignity.

The best part is that every one of us is invited into the work of peace, grace, and courtesy. Our age, economic-class, social-class, religion, education, etc. have no bearing on the invitation.

You are welcome here. Your child is welcome here.

 

Welcome Back!

Elizabeth Topliffe

Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the French I took
But I do know that I love you
And I know that if you love me, too
What a wonderful world this would be
— Sam Cooke, Wonderful World

Welcome back to school. I say that every year. And just like every other year, I flinch a little when I say it. Stepping Stones Montessori School is so far from what most of us think of as “school”, and it feels cliché to say “Welcome Back to School” when we are so much more.

My observations of the first few days back definitely include “school”. Students are proudly reading aloud. Children are eagerly engaging with work on shelves—land forms, trinomial cubes, practical life, and outdoor play.

I’ve also observed so much more. Students’ faces light up with pride while carrying in some amazing book projects. Their trepidation about making a presentation to the class is replaced by a look of belonging once other students go out of their way to help them know that it will be okay.

Upper elementary students have been interacting and playing with Children’s House students, running and enjoying games together.

A few parents, initially anxious about the first few days, have relaxed and eased in to life in this community.

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At this time of year, I reflect back to my own memories of pre-school and elementary school. I was curious what other people remember from school. So, I started asking lots of people—colleagues, parents, friends—what they remember about school. I have yet to find someone who includes academics in their answer. Not one person.

Friends remembered events like school plays, games at recess, friends, and field trips. They remembered lunch boxes, backpacks, and the path walked to school. Former colleagues recalled science projects, salt maps, and art projects.

Admin staff mentioned being part of a MEAP Party or the MEAP Pep Rally (for those of you new to Michigan, MEAP stands for Michigan Education Assessment Program—a standardized test given to Michigan students prior to 2008). My own school experience lacked the parties or pep rallies surrounding standardized tests, so I felt a little left out.

I remember friends. Kellie Stanley, Teresa Kistler, Stephanie Drummond, Lori Goldberg, Philip Christensen, Eric Dumas, and a sea of people who only own first names in my memory—Pia, Tamra, Kevin, Josh . . . . I remember teachers, especially the teachers who made an impact on me (both positive and negative). Mrs. Richter, Mrs. Emory, Mrs. Lovelace, Mr. Fox, Mrs. Parsons. . . . .

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Most people, including me, remembered music. They remembered the songs they sang in choir. They could sing every lyric of the songs they learned with friends—whether it was “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells”, “Deck the Halls with Poison Ivy”, or something much nicer like “My Favorite Things”. (As an aside, exactly why does Batman still smell all these decades later?)

We remember very little of homework, grades, tests, or even learning. Those things were likely part of our school life. They just were not the things of memories.

Instead of welcoming you back to school, I welcome you back to the Stepping Stones community. Welcome back to memory making. Welcome back to a school where the art room actually smells like art. Welcome back to projects. Welcome back to a home where other parents are around to help each other out. Welcome back to a place where professionals care about your entire family.

Welcome back to music.

Welcome back to time outdoors.

Welcome back to the place where memories are made—together.

My best,

Elizabeth

 

PS—If you know the lyrics to any of these songs, we should hang out:

“Rhinestone Cowboy”

“Carwash”

“Delta Dawn”

“You Make me Feel Like Dancing”

“Blinded by the Light”

“Disco Duck”

“I’m Your Boogie Man”

“Da Doo Ron Ron”