Presence in Experiential Education, Montessori school teaching, and the role of hands-on learning
By Stephanie Ortiz and Jim Stellar
After our last blog on Stephanie’s experience with hands-on learning in a Montessori elementary school and how that applies to the concept of sympathetic intelligence in experiential education, we decided to write again about what it is about this interaction of heart and head that drives learning. We started off with the idea of “presence” and how it fully engages people of all ages. Now, you had a story of a recent interaction with a student. Can you tell that story here?
In our classroom I incorporate a Peace Education curriculum where children learn tools that help with mindfulness, social-emotional skills that help with conflict resolution and learn stories on everyday heroes that have changed the world. This is important because I believe that early childhood education should go beyond just learning letters, shapes and numbers as was my experience in previous schools. Therefore, I believe children should also learn about topics that contribute to their whole development and give a sense of meaning and purpose to their learning.
This was the case with one of my students that did not fit in the traditional mold on how a student should learn. This student had no interest in reading or writing, up until the most peculiar thing occurred and I read to the class, I am Jane Goodall, by Brad Meltzer. My student with eyes full of wonder and eager expectation asked if “Jane Goodall was alive?” It was then without hesitation that she asked if she could write Jane Goodall a letter? She shared with me that it was important for her to thank Jane Goodall for all the work she has done with animals. She believed that to make the world a kinder place we have to show compassion to all living things and that is why she loved Jane Goodall. I readily agreed and she wrote the letter.
This student was obviously inspired by your support of her and the act of writing a letter is a direct engagement with the world that goes beyond the classroom. I understand this is an update to this story.
Yes, this same student surprised me recently with an interest in people that have made a remarkable change in society. About a month ago my student asked me if I can read the I am Anne Frank Book, by Brad Meltzer? It was to my astonishment that after class, she approached me and said, “Do you know why I wanted you to read the story of Anne Frank?” Of course, unsure as to exactly why, other than maybe it caught her interest because this is a story about a child, just like her; I asked her why? Then she stated, “I believe the world needs to remember Anne Frank’s story today more than ever because of what is happening in Ukraine and Russia.” My student went on to further explain that if we want to live in a peaceful world, we need to start by showing compassion and kindness to everyone.
Here this student, even at a young age, is engaging with you almost as a peer, a fellow human being, not just as an authority figure in the elementary school classroom. The connection she made with you is obviously inspiring and I would say it was brought on by your being fully present and treating her the same way as a person and not just another student. In our last blog, as cited above, we talked about the idea of sympathetic intelligence as a connection or resonance between a teacher and a student. This seems to be an example in depth of that idea. So how did you feel when you saw this student step out of the classroom operation, not once but twice. Did you feel this sympathetic intelligence type of connection as a teacher?
My heart was filled with an abundance of joy and admiration, her response reflected compassion, sincerity, and courage in the purest form. As a result, it also silenced a room full of her critics, in this case other teachers that labeled her as lazy and flighty when learning. However, I knew within my gut there was more within her, despite what others believed and I’m a firm believer that intelligence is to be measured in multiple ways. All in all, I am humbled that she felt the trust and the connection to share her thoughts with me. I am also certain that this was due to the sympathetic intelligence type of connection; especially since I’ve observed her personality and interactions with other teachers, and they are significantly different and more reserved. Therefore, as an educator, it’s fundamental that I not only equip my students to learn the foundational tools necessary for academic success, but that in doing so I also build a connection with them from one human to another that wants to make the world a better place. Some may argue that I give my students too much liberty in my approach to education, but I believe that in a prepared environment that embodies Montessori’s philosophy of freedom within limits, a child can thrive beyond any of our expectations if just given the opportunity and guidance.
That joy you felt as a teacher is, as you say, a symptom of the sympathetic intelligence connection you formed with the student. Of course, we are writing about it here because that interaction led to an accomplishment on the part of the student. That is great. But the bond it leaves behind, the mutual joy of accomplishment, is something that can open a student’s eyes to their potential. It is these kinds of experiences that I think are core to the “being present” part of the Montessori school approach or even the now 20+ year old book “Teaching with your Mouth Shut” by Finkel. It is truly head-and-heart integration and so similar to what college students much later experience when they meet a mentor, do an internship, study abroad, etc. It is what you did with this child.