Hello there everyone. It’s been a wee while since I last shared my time with you. I’ve just wrapped up the first part of an intensive three week summer teaching course and am eager to begin anew in the field of Montessori education. I won’t mention where I’m working this fall, but I’m pursuing my education through the Seacoast Center and what I will say that the past few weeks have been some of the best of the year.
It meant having a chance to reconnect with educators who genuinely want to better the lives of their students, who look to improve their abilities as teachers, and are some of the most empathetic and determined people I’ve ever met. One of the mantras I was pleasantly surprised to see pop up in the study and lecture sessions was one I’ve seen before as an environmental educator: It’s All Living and Connected.
This isn’t a grand statement. It really shouldn’t be, but we are disconnected from so many things around us especially when it comes to where we belong in nature’s grand design. Aldo Leopold, one of the patron saints of wildlife biology, put it like this:
“To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”Aldo Leopold
Leopold references this when speaking about the changes humans make to the landscape to better it for their own wants and desires. Want more farmland? Drain the swamps. Want to colonize an area in the name of a united nation of people who generally look like you? Drive the folks who already live there off and take it away from them. Want to spice up your options when it comes to hunting? Introduce nonnative animals and wonder why some of the native species are starting to disappear. But how you ask does this relate to Montessori?
Maria Montessori believed that by observing the child and how they learn yields more insight into how to teach them about life, the universe, and everything than could be attempted in the current practice of teaching. Rote memorization, filling the child’s head with facts and drilling them to take more and more tests that demonstrate their ability to take tests, but not to think critically and engage competing ideas is an adequate critique of what modern schools and teachers have to deal with. Montessori brings the focus on the whole of the being you are tasked with leading rather than isolating what parts are needed to be patched or mended. The basic philosophy is simple. Viewing the child as whole and recognizing that their aspects work in concert to make them who they are, while using the scientific method of observation and record keeping to demonstrate the effort and progress that each child is making. It’s literally a fusion of atomism and holism and it’s quite wonderful to see.
One of the practices of Montessori teaching is looking at what methods work for that particular person and actively noticing how they want to learn will be of more benefit to their well being than trying to force them to learn in other formalized education systems. When I was a small child, I had the privilege of going to a Montessori school for a year or two. The open concept classroom where you could sit and work on your reading and vocabulary skills was a welcome respite from what would be the form of teaching I would experience for the rest of my formal educational journey. I felt I had agency as a student, an ability to study what I was interested in and to take the time I needed to work on things I found difficult.
I remember the first day of public school when a teacher scolded me for not sitting at a desk like the other children. I had dared to look at the books out of turn of their intentions for us as students, their ideas about how we should be behaving, their expectations for how we should respect or even fear their authority. I felt especially put upon when it came to math. I’ve been one to say that mathematics isn’t for me and that the way I was taught it was confusing at best and at worst suggested that I couldn’t possibly learn how to do it properly.
After being reintroduced to Montessori mathematics however, I’m proud to report that there is another way. One that I found to be easier and intuitive. I learned how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide huge sums using something called Stamp Game. The gist of S.G. is that using colored wooden squares called “stamps” (green for 1000’s and 1’s, red for 100’s, and blue for 10’s) you work your problems out similarly to how you would work on an abacus. Let’s say you want to find out what 345+673 equals. The first thing you would do is gather the number of 100’s, 10’s, and 1’s you would need to build the first number. In this case, it would be three 100’s, four 10’s, and five 1’s. Then, you would work from your units up to your 100’s to get your answer.
Firstly, 3+5=8, so you would have 8 green unit stamps. Next, you would add your 10’s. 4+7=11, but that puts you over your 10’s, so you would carry those 10 tens (a 100) over to the next column. While this is happening, you would have exchanged your 10 tens for a red 100 stamp and added that to the last column. So now you should have your single blue 10 stamp and your 8 green unit stamps together and be tallying up your 100 stamps. 3+6=9, but if you add the 10 tens (100) to that, it makes it 1000. So you then exchange your ten 100 stamps for a 1000 green stamp and you have your answer. 345+673=1018.
I began this piece with the mantra of “It’s all living and connected.” It doesn’t only apply to our connection with the natural world, but also how we have reacted to and within in for our human history. One of the best reasons to bring up stamp game is because of its comparisons to that history. Ever heard of a centurion? What about a decurion? I bet you can figure out why commanders of 100 units or even just 10 units might be relevant to teaching our decimal system. If you’re still confused though, just look at the Golden Beads, a classic Montessori lesson about the decimal system. Marvel at their simplicity, wonder at their beauty, and know that there is a better way to learn math and feel confident about it. I certainly did.