Aug. 31, 2008

Watching my Parents Sleeping Beside an Open Window Near the Sea

by Rebecca McClanahan

Needing them still, I come
when I can, this time to the sea
where we share a room: their double bed,
my single. Morning fog paints the pale
scene even paler. Lace curtains breathing,
the chenille spread folded back,
my father's feet white sails furled
at the edge of blue pajamas.
Every child's dream, a parent
in each hand, though this child is fifty.
Their bodies fit easily, with room
to spare. When did they grow
so small? Grow so small—
as if it were possible to swell
backwards into an earlier self.
On the bureau, their toys
and trinkets. His shaving brush
and pink heart pills, her gardenia
sachet. The tiny spindle that pricks
the daily bubble of blood, her sweet
chemistry. Above our heads
a smoke alarm pulses, its red eye beating.
One more year, I ask the silence.
Last night to launch myself
into sleep I counted their breaths, the tidal
rise and fall I now put my ear to,
the coiled shell of their lives.

"Watching my Parents Sleeping Beside an Open Window Near the Sea" by Rebecca McClanahan, from Deep Light: New and Selected Poems 1987-2007. © Iris Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of educator Maria Montessori, (books by this author) born in Chiaravalle, Italy (1870). She studied literature and medicine at the University of Rome and was the first woman in Italy to be granted a doctor of medicine (M.D.) degree. She worked as a psychiatric instructor at a clinic for children with learning disabilities and developed therapeutic approaches that involved appeals to the children's senses, especially the sense of touch.

She noticed that kids who were given something to put in their hands and play with had a corresponding positive cerebral response. She eventually left that clinic to direct the preschool education of children in San Lorenzo, a slum neighborhood in Rome that had become so overcrowded and problematic that the government had reorganized aspects of residents' daily lives. This included setting up children's day care houses through out the city, where parents were to drop off their kids, ages three to seven, while they were at work. Montessori was put in charge of one of these houses, and she used the opportunity to implement on normal poor children some of the methods she'd used with developmentally challenged children. These children responded positively to her techniques as well, demonstrating high levels of learning and achievement.

Dr. Montessori began to write out her educational curriculum and philosophy and lecture extensively, so that schools around the world could replicate it. Basic tenets of her approach included a very literal "hands-on" style of learning. For example, children were given building blocks to use and the shapes of cut-out alphabet letters to handle. She didn't think that teachers should impose their personalities on the children; instead, teachers, called "directors" in her system, were to provide the educational materials and then step back and be a "silent presence," ready to assist if beseeched. She said, "Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed."

She believed in the need for practical as well as academic education, so preschool children were provided with toys and tools that helped them learn to tie shoelaces. They learned to use forks and knifes, and they practiced things like washing their hands and making sandwiches. She also thought that tests and grades were not productive and that children should learn at their own pace and pursue what interests them. She wrote, "One test of the correctness of educational procedure is the happiness of the child."

Montessori methods became influential in America, and today there are more than 5,000 Montessori schools in the United States, 300 of which are public schools. A study in 2006 published in the journal Science tested public school children in inner-city Milwaukee, some who had won a district lottery to attend the public Montessori school, and a separate control group who had entered the Montessori lottery but did not get picked. (This was to account for differences in home environment between the sorts of parents who want their children to attend Montessori; in this study, every participant's parents had wanted their child to enroll in Montessori.)

The study showed that five-year-olds who attended Montessori had better vocabulary and math skills, as well as better social problem-solving skills — that when presented with stories of behavior dilemmas, Montessori children used "a higher level of reasoning by referring to justice or fairness to convince the other child" to share. Twelve-year-old Montessori children were deemed to have written essays that were "significantly more creative" and that employed "significantly more sophisticated sentence structures" than their non-Montessori peers, though their spelling and grammar skills were at an equal level.

Maria Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times, though she never received the award. She's the author of Dr. Montessori's Own Handbook (1911), The Secret of Childhood (1939), The Absorbent Mind (1949), and The Discovery of the Child (1948).

She said, "Free the child's potential, and you will transform him into the world."

And, "Establishing lasting peace is the work of education; all politics can do is keep us out of war."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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