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School Observations

jhfabre

Jean Henri Fabre is a famous French entomologist. Although he came from a poor and impoverished background, he became a teacher and later he was well-known for his studies and research on insects and arachnids. Fabre was not a dry, clinical scientist. His writings on his observations are poetic masterpieces of literature. ( Perhaps Fabre’s most famous experiments is known as the Pine Processionary. The Pine caterpillars formed a continuous loop around the edge of a pot that held their food. As each caterpillar instinctively followed the silken trail of the caterpillars in front of it, the group moved around in a circle for seven days without deviation, in spite of  starvation. This showed the power of instinct in the creatures; there was no power of reason.) Fabre was precise in his observations, a true scientist who observed, recorded and observed again. Many people thought he was a little crazy in his dedication. I’m sure he looked a little silly as he lay on the ground and watched his insects and spiders for hours and days at a time. But he believed that if he was to see how an insect lived, he must  observe the insect in its own habitat.

Observation is the corner-stone of the Montessori Method. It is not an exercise confined to a training year, but the beginning of a fundamental and intrinsic skill that the teacher must continue to develop. It really means that we learn to see the child, not just look at him. Maria Montessori was a doctor and a scientist and when she observed, she looked with an objective eye at phenomena before her. We must learn to do the same sort of  ‘looking’. What good is our science if we don’t know our subject? The subject is the growth and development of the person. Like Jean Henri Fabre, we must learn how ‘sit still ‘ record what we see without bias or preconceived judgments.

On Friday, I completed the second observation week. Last November I went to France and met Laurant Baurdin and his little one-room school in Grasse. This time I was able to stay in Bergamo and spend each day in the British Bilingual School.  It isn’t a Montessori School, strictly speaking, but the Elementary teacher is Montessori trained and was kind enough to host me for the week.

The teacher was working under a few restrictions: she had to follow the strict and intense Italian curriculum and she did not have the benefit of a mixed-age classroom. The administration had provided some Montessori materials, although a limited selection. Nonetheless, she worked with a marvelous group of children and did the best she could with what she had.

The teacher wasn’t under observation, however. It was the children I had come to see! I quickly settled on a young lady for no particular or distinctive reason. She just happened to be close to me at 8:30 on Monday morning. Each day I sat on a small stool by the door; I watched and waited and recorded. As the days went by the children showed me, in a marvelous way, how much they could do and carry out under their own initiative. Given a structure, they were set free. These children showed a profound love of learning, of self-discipline and self-motivation. They respected the teacher and helped one another; they were fun and creative and asked for more challenge in math and science. There was no such thing as procrastination.  I could say they were ‘on fire’.

The teacher gave lessons to individual students and small groups. She allowed them to make choices and sometimes she channeled their over-whelming enthusiasm to a realizable goal. She was a guide in the true sense of the word. The Montessori maxim of  ‘follow the child’ was understandable in this classroom because the children’s fire and love of learning brought on more discoveries of the children’s own making.

This natural out-pouring of enthusiasm on the part of the children could only arise from ‘freedom within limits’. Montessori observed this same phenomena and realized that she was looking at the nature of the child, ‘hitherto undiscovered.’ It is not a blind humanism that everything good is accomplished with the least intervention. I could see that the children were given structure: freedom and responsibility in balance according to their maturity. Human nature is still weak and fallen and in need of God. Who knows this more than child who has reached the age of reason?

I could see that these children were capable of doing more with their knowledge and freedom. What a joyful sight! Can you imagine having this experience as a child? I think that as an adult you would understand that the world is an interesting place, full of wonders and adventures. More than that, there would be a deep sense of confidence that those adventures could be lived because, once upon a time not very long ago, someone gave you the freedom to live your dreams and to succeed.

Wonderful as it was, we did not spend every waking moment in the classroom! French schools are off every Wednesday, so that meant adventure and exploring for me and Valle. We met up in Cannes, a city right on the coast and straight away headed to the harbor. I think we both had an internal homing device that sent us straight to the sea. As it so happened, the ferry was waiting for us at the dock and we hopped aboard and headed out into the endless blue of sea and sky.

The Lerins Islands sit a few miles offshore of the French Riviera. They are massive rocks, jutting out from the water, impenetrable to constant push of water and wind or the changing monarchies who have fought over them for centuries. We disembarked onto St. Marguerite and let ourselves wander through the verdant garden that the Island is today. There are many ruins of monasteries, castles, and forts, though I suspect the fishing village is the one set of structures hasn’t changed an iota since the stone-age.

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Goodbye, Cannes!

The French Alps are impressive: they tumble down from snow peaked ridges and throw themselves into the Mediterranean.

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Approaching the Island dock:

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The sky was clear, the water blue and the sun was warm. I curled up on a hot rock a fell fast asleep until a troop of hikers came by and woke me up with their ha-loo-ing and shouting. I could see wind-surfers and sail-boats out on the water too, and they made their fair share of fun!

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The largest set of ruins isn’t so bad; in fact, it’s still used as a hostel and vacation house for families. The piles of stone of served their time as a monastery, a fortress, a prison, a yacht club, robbers den (what’s the difference?), and now a vacation hostel.

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The Man in the Iron Mask was the most famous prisoner held in the fort. Can you imagine? I shuddered to think of never leaving…..

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Dear Friends,

The trip to France was wonderful. I was actually there only a week and returned to Bergamo (Italy) November 9th, only to find the internet down at the apartment! That meant all I could do was work; so I’ve been working on papers and charts ever since. Please forgive the seeming neglect. Thanks to all who wrote letters!

France: 

A fellow student and I observed at a small school that was opened only two years ago by a former student and his wife.  The lead teacher, Laurent,  took the training course here in Bergamo only three years ago but his presence is still felt in the Centre. He was known as the ‘fire man’ during the training because he would call out, ‘More fire!” when he heard something exciting or enlightening in lectures. 

He has a rather unusual story: he was crippled in a skiing accident at the age of 19. When he awoke in the hospital, paralyzed from the waist down, he was so happy to be alive that he cheered up all the doctors and hospital staff. He went on to start various businesses’ and such ventures but dreamed of starting a school. When he enrolled his children in a Montessori school, he was enthralled by the method. He recognized something that he loved.  The only problem was, his children didn’t stop growing and in a matter of a few short years he was faced with yet another decision of where to send them to school. The French school system is abysmal (by all local accounts) and, not in habit of taking anything less than exactly want was needed, decided to take the Montessori Elementary training himself and begin the school he knew he wanted for his children.  

The building itself is humble enough: it is a converted garage. The yard is limited to black-top and a few olive trees. There is space for a small garden behind the little play area and it was still growing an admirable number of cabbages, lettuces, and parsnips. The children even gathered the olives for pressing. Inside the classroom were long windows, letting in plenty of natural light and the room was filled with many familiar materials, all neatly arranged. Laurent either made the materials himself or had them made by a carpenter. Laurent drew and painted most of the maps, pictures, and paper materials for geometry, botany and science. This level of  handiwork in a classroom is almost unprecedented at the elementary level. The materials are often very expensive and must be specially ordered for the school. Laurent seemed to find the energy around such insurmountable obstacles, often making materials himself. It was easy to see why he was known for his ‘fire’!

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