How Do We Know It Works? — By Bart Theriot

Growing up in the commercial generation, so many of those old television interruptions have been forever etched into my brain. One that seems to continually resurface is the old Dennorex Dandruff Shampoo commercial. There’s a guy standing in a shiny tiled shower and his hair has been perfectly parted down the middle with soapy shampoo suds on either side. The Dennorex is on his left. He looks at the camera and says”This side tingles, so I know it’s working.” Even as a child I remember thinking “Lots of things will tingle if you put them on your head. I’m not sure that really means it’s “working.” There may have been an entirely valid scientific reason why a tingling scalp is a good thing, but Dennorex guy would never know it. Of course, in education, we’ve taken the concept of evaluation to new heights…or lows depending upon your perspective. In Montessori we assess our programs on the scale of human thriving. Our version of the scalp-tingling effect, the “Montessori Moment.”

We find them in our classrooms just about every day. Montessori moments appear in a vast range of examples. Sometimes it might be an individual moment of realization or confidence in overcoming a challenge. Other times they represent examples of children treating each other with kindness, generosity, leadership, patience and humanity. They may be simple and brief or complex and prolonged. They are almost always spontaneous and the adult is usually barely involved. It is a beautiful thing when a Montessori moment unfolds before your eyes. I have had the priviledge of experiencing many of these moments as a parent. I’ve even written about a few of them on this website. Each of these memories has stuck with me over the years, but there are a few that continue to shape my philosophy of education and parenting. This is the story of one such moment and it just might be the perfect example of Montessori done right.

Our elementary room consists of a 4 year age span, ranging from 1st grade through 4th grade. Each child is encouraged to find individuality, but also to actively seek connections and make contributions within the classroom community. This work is as important as any assignment they will receive from the teachers. Over the course of the school year, each student gives a “personality day” presentation. This is our purposeful way of helping each child to express him or herself on their birthday. Parents are also invited to attend. Of course it is great fun for the students, but it is also a wonderful opportunity for children to explore their passions, develop confidence, gain public speaking experience and to learn about each other. It is just one of a million little intentional things about our elementary classroom that combine to bring about Montessori moments of magic.

In 2019, my son was 7 years old. At the time, his elementary class had 26 students and every one of them knew he could not read. Robin was diagnosed with dyslexia about a year earlier and continues to work very hard to overcome this challenge. The students never saw it as some kind of secretive condition. They knew it in the same way they knew Robin had three brothers, liked soccer, had a pet dog name Lucca, a cat named Lewie, and loved Domino’s pizza. They understood him as a friend. When it was his week for his personality presentation, Robin described pictures and related stories of his travels during his 7 years of life. At the end of the presentation, he fielded questions from the class and then the children assembled into a large circle. Robin moved into the center with a small treasure chest full of little folded strips of paper. Eariler in the week, as a part of the personality project, each student had written a message of affirmation and Robin was to choose 5 at random to read aloud.

My wife and I were not aware of this part of the personality day, so we didn’t have any idea what was about to happen. As Robin opened the box, we noticed every child in the circle was leaning in and focused very intently. He carefully chose his 5 notes and as he opened the first, a friend recognized it was the note he had written. The child entered the circle, moving close to Robin and whispered in his ear. Robin repeated the words to the class. “Robin, you are a great friend.” The child quietly returned to his place in the circle. As Robin opened the next note, another child did the same thing, whispering the words in his ear. This continued for all 5 notes. When he read the last one, the children jumped up and closed the circle in around Robin as they sang happy birthday with their funny little “cha, cha, cha” chant. His smile was priceless and my wife and I had to wipe away our own tears from the sheer beauty of that moment.

It has been two years and I still tell this story sometimes when I introduce a new parent to the elementary class. It’s a beautiful scene, but if we look at it with same the simplicity as the Dennorex guy, we will never know why or how it happened and we can never be sure whether it will happen again. So when I reflect back on this moment as an educator, there are three ideas that come to mind:

1.No one told these children to do this. Helping Robin read those notes was never discussed between the teacher and the children. I asked the teachers, just to be sure. We are all pretty certain the children never planned it among themselves at any point, either. Yet, the moment Robin sat down to read, all 25 students immediately, sponteaneously, responded in the same way.

2.The students had no idea they were doing anything out of the ordinary. They were acting on pure empathy and confidence in their ability to make things better. Things that they witness in their peers everyday. This is just their view of how the world should always work. Don’t we all wish that were the case?

3.Not a single student ever felt they should be praised for their effort. They were motivated simply by their relationships with their friend and the recognition of his need. The reward was contributing to his success and happiness and the feeling that comes from recognizing a problem and solving it on your own.

Montessori moments occur from within the child, almost organically. Many of them are predictable, not only because we have seen them before, but because they are intentional results of our method. Other times, as in the case of Robin’s personality day, they are completely unique and may never happen again the same way. In both cases, Montessori moments are quite different in the world of educational evaluation, in which examples of growth or ability are often solicited and repetitive. If we look closely, we find that each of these moments has its own history. So when we encounter them, we try to recognize all of the skills and character traits on display and attempt to trace them back to their origins within the classroom. Where in other educational models, student and teacher evaluation has become a chore, leading to stress, anxiety, misunderstanding an error, we feel so fortunate to spend our time searching for moments of beauty and human thriving. These Montessori moments are our proof that Montessori works.

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