Teacher Talk: Wired, Weird Days
Tis the season for chaos in our classrooms. It may catch you by surprise: the classrooms have been steadily tooling along. The children are used to the norms and expectations of the classroom. You've seen a few moments of peace, some optimistic concentration. You're on the right track.
And suddenly, it seems like every week is either preparing for, celebrating or recovering from a special cultural observance, or a visit from groups of parents and family members, and the peaceful rhythms of the classrooms are disrupted. What to do?
First, don't panic. Community celebrations are a good thing. They give us the opportunity to break bread together, to learn about cultural festivities in our country and abroad, to build all the motor, math and language skills needed to prepare a meal or throw a party, and to learn to welcome guests to our classrooms. The commotion that's caused by the celebration can be worth the disruption to your schedule, especially if the event is hosted, as all things in the Montessori classroom should be, with a focus on how to best meet the needs of the child.
Figure out what parts of the event can be reasonably "delegated" to the children: Can the children prepare the food? Can they set the table? Can they move smaller tables together to make space for larger groups? Can they write out invitations to their family members? Can they prepare thank-you cards afterward? The more involved the children are in preparing for the event, the more child-centered it will be. Sacrifice the perfect table setting for the one the child was able to create herself. Let the line get a little longer if it means the children are serving themselves and their guests. Model for parents and guests that the purpose of the event is not just to throw a party, but to use those cultural festivities as a means to support the development of the child.
Consider the schedule for the day with the child in mind: Does your classroom do best if unusual events are scheduled first thing in the morning or at the end of the day? If you schedule an event that welcomes guests in before the children return to their regular classroom, have you thought through how to make that transition as responsive as possible? Does your schedule interfere with any of the children's basic needs: snack time, nap time, etc? And if so, how will you make sure those needs are met nonetheless? The prepared environment is mindfully designed for the children's success. You should prepare it with as much care and attention on special days. Indeed, you should prepare it with more.
If your school celebrations conflict with your understanding of Montessori, decide how to address it with the rest of your faculty. Lots of schools have celebrations that encourage behaviors or activities that are far from the Montessori ideals. Tons of candy or healthy food choices? Orderly environments or wild indoor games? Fantasy? Predictability? Agency? Choice? Think about most children's parties and you're sure to imagine points of conflict. But at the same time, celebrations can be a part of the fabric and history of the school, so adjusting them to be more consistent with Montessori may require a little creativity. Use Halloween as an opportunity to prepare parents for the role of fantasy and imagination. Use Thanksgiving to talk about harvest and gratitude instead of unfounded Pilgrim Tales. Use the Winter Holidays to compare festivals of light across the world rather than to bring in Santa. If your school has a tradition of celebrating in particular ways, think carefully about when to introduce new ideas. Remember: many of these traditions are on the calendar well before the school year begins. If you want to make a change to "how we do it here," you're best to think about changes in the long-term, when you have enough time to allow any concerns or challenges to be addressed and when you can develop a plan that better serves children while respecting the traditions of your school community.
Prepare the children: Don't presume that classroom parties are necessarily fun for children. Often, they're disruptive to children's sense of order. They're loud and offensive to children's hearing. They're populated with multiple adults with different expectations and ripe with confusion for young children. Just as you would not expect the children to master a complicated Math lesson the first time they were exposed to it, you should not expect that they'll master the complicated and unpredictable environment of a class party without preparation. Like all things, break it down into manageable parts. Create lessons that prepare children for the systems of the party: how to walk through a buffet line, how to welcome a guest to the table, etc. Use group conversations to predict what the party might feel like, and affirm for children that sometimes class parties can be confusing or unsettling. Prep before the party so that what's appealing to adults doesn't overwhelm the children.
Let it go: Prepare mindfully. Talk to other stakeholders about how to make celebrations as responsive as possible. Support the children in readying for the event. But then, remember: these are just single days. Remind parents to go easy on themselves: their children's behavior at a class party is not a symbol of their value or potential. It's just a day, a very unusual day filled with new foods, new noises, new people and lots of change. Give yourself and the children the patience a new environment deserves, and then get back to work afterward, affirming your classroom norms as quickly as possible after the event is over and allowing children to take comfort in the predictability of the every-other-days. Celebrations are meant to be special days to come together. Make your expectations reasonable and your preparations through, and you can enjoy events that are more festive than fiasco.