Monday, August 19, 2019

"Look! I'm really taking my time and being super careful."

            Hello and happy Monday! I can’t believe summer’s already coming to an end. I’ve never been good at goodbyes, but with Westmont it’s always more of a ‘see you later’ than a goodbye. The photo above is from when I started my journey at Westmont. I hope that everyone who read these blogs has enjoyed them as much as I have had writing them. Over this summer I feel as though I’ve been taken back to my roots—not only because I physically returned to the place I grew up, but because I returned to so many concepts I thought I understood, but had lost touch with. As adults, we seem to get in the habit of getting something done or understanding something as quickly as possible so we can ‘check the box’. Then once we finish that task we don’t see any point in revisiting it. I’ve found through being around the children that this mindset can make it hard to hold onto what we do accomplish and understand. Westmont encourages children to take their time with whatever they do—whether it’s a seahorse craft that takes five minutes or map work that takes months to complete. Westmont culture teaches children to be entirely present and focused on whatever they choose to do, something we lose touch with as adults. It can be easy to buy into the idea that slowing down and taking your time doing something isn’t as productive as tearing your way through tasks as quickly as possible. I heard a child say this week, “Look! I'm really taking my time and being super careful.” Westmont’s emphasis on patience always pulled me back to focusing on the work itself so that I could gain real satisfaction when I was finished regardless of how long it took.
            Being at Westmont this summer reminded me that it’s always worth taking your time to really absorb and reflect on the work being done and the ideas behind it. Otherwise, what’s the point in doing it at all? I sat with a child doing a puzzle this week and watched as he slowly turned over the pieces and found how each one fit together with the rest. I got that familiar sense that I needed to rush to get it done even though there was no real deadline for completing this little penguin puzzle. I looked back at him doing the puzzle. With every piece he put together he grinned and said, "Yay! I did it!" He was completely present. Being at Westmont this summer felt like coming home, but it also felt like a gentle reminder to patiently and thoughtfully move forward into the future. I encourage everyone to take their time too. So thank you, Westmont for giving me the opportunity to sit down and take my time with your philosophy this summer—from respect to responsibility to everything in between. I wouldn’t be the person I am without you. 
            All the best,

Monday, August 12, 2019

"Would you please sit next to me tomorrow?": Integrity & the 'Checking In' Mentality at Westmont

            Hello and happy Monday! Last week I discussed the importance and unique role of every person in the Westmont community. With this being my last week at Westmont and my second to last blog, I’ve been reflecting on what my own role has been this summer. This summer I’ve acted as a kind of sponge, absorbing the everyday experience of being at Westmont through witnessing the children’s interactions and Westmont’s role in those interactions. Over the summer I usually hear a child or teacher say a particular thing that seems to sum up everything I’ve been unpacking that week. This week, however, I took a closer look at the dialogue that I’d been hearing over the course of the summer and in looking at these conversations, I ended up unpacking the concept of integrity. I’ve noticed that so many conversations between children at Westmont involve checking in on one another. This takes various forms, from one child asking another “Would you please sit next to me tomorrow?” and the other child answering “Yeah!” with a grin, to a child asking a teacher why another child is sad. Just today a child was frustrated because he couldn’t tie his shoe, so he sat down instead of playing. Another child in the room immediately understood that he was upset and asked me why. Once I explained, he got up and started walking around the room to find work that might cheer up his friend until they both ended up playing kitchen together. It got me to thinking that I can’t remember a single time at Westmont when a child has been upset and no other child has expressed concern.
            While this is just one scenario, this ‘checking in’ mentality is evident every single day. When unpacking this mentality, I came up with two main aspects that lead to ‘checking in’: honesty and perspective. Honesty comes first and last in this; it is a central of being a child. All children have a natural proclivity for honesty—honest in the questions they ask and the feelings they express. Honesty alone, however, does not lead to empathy and ‘checking in’. This is where perspective comes in. In order to successfully ‘check in’ with another person—whether they are upset or you want to ask them to sit next you tomorrow—perspective is crucial. At Westmont, children are taught to ‘shift the camera’ in a sense, seeing things from their peers’ perspective. As they are repeatedly encouraged to consider how the other person might feel, this becomes second nature. Therefore, it feels wrong not to ask how a friend is feeling. As a result, through their natural unabashed honesty and understanding of perspective, Westmont children gain a sense of integrity. Looking through the lens of a child seems to unpack even the most overwhelming concepts. I hope to channel the integrity of the children at Westmont when I go back to college in a few weeks, unafraid to check in on the people around me. Have a great week everyone and I’ll see you next week for the last blog!

Monday, August 5, 2019

The Westmont Orbit: Unpacking Westmont's Tight-Knit Community

           Hello and happy Monday! I hope you're all having great summers so far. I typically draw my inspiration for each post from a direct experience I have with the children during the week—a snapshot of the present at Westmont. This week, however, my inspiration came from a connection to the past. After reading one of my blogs, a fellow alum from my graduating kindergarten class reached out to me via social media expressing his excitement about my continued involvement with Westmont. The two of us were inseparable when we were children, but it had been fifteen years since we’d spoken! We started catching up and discovered that we both go to universities in New York City and plan to connect in the fall. I couldn't help but sit back and consider why Westmont was able to pull us into the same orbit once again all these years later. This led me to thinking about the Westmont ‘orbit’—the unique and quintessentially Westmont dynamic between present students and alumni.
            Westmont creates a mentality that focuses on the different roles children—and people—play rather than on the differences separating people. For example, the older children are often reminded of their status as role models for the younger children. Even when children return to Extended Day after they graduate, they continue to take their role model status seriously. As a result, Westmont keeps everyone in its orbit. I recently saw a Junior Counselor in Exploration Camp sitting on the floor reading a story to a camper nestled right against his side. The Junior Counselor was animated and completely invested in telling the story while the child hung on every word. I may as well have been invisible as I stood and watched them. Only at Westmont could the scene before me take place. Alumni return to their schools all the time, but at Westmont ‘returning’ isn’t the right word. You never truly leave Westmont’s orbit because the door is always open. Westmont continues to be invested in its students. The child sitting beside the Junior Counselor, hanging on every word, is able to look up and see himself as part of Westmont in the future—transformed and moving forward while always welcome back and part of the community. Westmont simultaneously recognizes and encourages the growth of its students while continuing to believe in their abilities and offer them an unwavering source of support.

Monday, July 29, 2019

“We’re all gardeners!”

         Hello and happy Monday! Between our ‘Under the Sea’ Exploration Camp and ‘Nature Fun’ Extended Day Camp, the children spent the week learning about our biggest shared space: the environment. Thinking about the massive scale of our community when it comes to our environment—a worldwide community—can be overwhelming. As Westmont does with all its lessons, however, it starts with the small, manageable, and understandable before expanding outwards. While children are encouraged to work independently—building self-esteem and capability—Westmont also cultivates an environment that is inherently communal. The work on the shelves is for everyone to have a turn with, the rug at the center of the classroom is for everyone to sit around, and the garden is for everyone to take care of and harvest from. This community-centric mindset is not learned like a math formula or a set of instructions; the children learn this mindset from each other every day. The children learn to step forward to help one another with a problem and care for a sad friend without hesitation because for them—because of Westmont—there is no other way to be. I see it every day when I sit down next to them as they decorate their own seahorse crafts or gather around to marvel at a grasshopper on the playground. While it sounds contradictory, Westmont simultaneously teaches children to be both independent and community-oriented. 
  I can’t think of anything more representative of Westmont’s emphasis on shared space than the garden in the playground, which was possible because of money raised through the ’18-’19 Ray of Light. Filled with flowers, kale, celery, strawberries, basil, and more, the garden encourages and represents the communal energy of Westmont. This past week the garden has flourished, nearly overflowing, which seems fitting given how much time the children have spent learning about the importance of our environment. From filling up watering cans and rushing over to help the garden grow to simply wandering over to check on the plants, the children love having that shared space—something they can all contribute to and take responsibility for. While we were out on the playground this week I asked the children if they’d like to go check on the garden. As always, they ran over to the garden before I could get another word out. With the garden being so full at the moment, the children and staff are encouraged to eat or take home the produce they’ve grown. As they each pulled off a piece of celery, one child said, “We’re all gardeners!” In one moment he seemed to sum up everything I’d been thinking about: the inherent understanding that everyone has responsibility for the garden. Like I discussed in my previous blog, however, this responsibility actually becomes empowering and satisfying for children at Westmont. Most importantly, just as the garden enhances the children’s community-oriented mindset, the Ray of Light Fund allows Westmont to further cultivate its uniquely communal and independent environment. Have a wonderful week!

Monday, July 22, 2019

"It's amazing how much he's getting it already. They are so capable."

            Hello and happy Monday everyone! I hope you all managed to stay cool over the weekend. Looking back on the past week I keep coming back to the time I spent with Discovery Camp and the concept of personal responsibility. As a much smaller group than Exploration Camp, Discovery Camp focuses on getting younger campers (18-36 months) into the rhythm of Montessori education. At first glance it might seem strange and counterintuitive for me to pair the youngest children with what seems like such an “adult” concept. My idea of personal responsibility has previously been defined as maturely acknowledging a wrong. This week, however, my notion of personal responsibility was turned completely on its head. As I walked into Discovery Camp one morning, I was greeted by what can only be described as an overwhelming Montessori energy. I could practically feel the inspiration radiating off the teachers as they moved from child to child, prepared to offer guidance if needed while encouraging the children to move independently. The phrase "in one’s element" came to mind right away. Not long after I walked in, I noticed a child walking with a cup in his hands from the sink with a look of fierce determination. Noticing my interest, the teachers chimed in and told me that he had been working all week to successfully complete the seashell washing work. Wide-eyed with excitement, they explained that he had been learning through watching the other children do the work: taking a cup to the sink, filling it, and taking it to the shell to wash it. I watched as he started to make his way across the room, totally focused. Then, when his legs carried him forward too quickly, water sloshed over the sides of the cup and onto the floor. I tend to keep my focus on the child in these situations, but in that moment I couldn’t help but watch the teachers as they crouched down to meet the child’s eyes and encouraged him that he knew to get a towel to clean up the water he’d spilled. They encouraged his capability and responsibility all at once. As he got a towel and wiped the floor without hesitation, the teacher said with certainty, “It’s amazing how much he’s getting it already. They [the children] are so capable.” It made sense to me then, the way in which personal responsibility is taught as an essential part of capability and accomplishment at Westmont. As adults we tend to think of accomplishment or success as totally separate from making a mistake, seeing that mistake as a failure and the opposite of doing work successfully. From a Montessori perspective, however, this is not the case. At Westmont, making a mistake in one's work does not mean a child can't do it; taking responsibility for it is not a failure, but is actually a part of doing the work itself. As a result, personal responsibility becomes part of every action we do. It’s simply part of the process. When the child cleaned up the water and went back to the sink to fill up his cup to try again, I was left in awe and inspired to change my own mindset when it comes to personal responsibility and success. Have a great week everyone!

Monday, July 15, 2019

"Is it okay if we get glue on our hands? Yes!"

            Hello and happy Monday! This past week I felt overwhelmed in the best possible way by the amount of creativity and imagination at Westmont. If you’ve ever been around children then you know that they simply radiate imagination. At Westmont this week several children invited me over to the train on the playground, explaining adamantly that they were heading to the zoo. When I asked which animals they were going to see, each child piped up one after the other without hesitation, “Penguins! Bobcats! Lions!” From there I headed to the sandbox where the children filled buckets with sand and told me simply that they were making huge cupcakes. Seeing the children’s unwavering confidence in their imagination both inspired me and made me pause. I consider myself a creative person, but I can’t remember the last time I just let my imagination run wild without considering what others might think or if I should edit my thoughts somehow. I imagine other adults have a similar thought process when it comes to creating something. Children, however, have a liberating certainty that comes with creating. This mentality, however, is particularly evident and encouraged at Westmont because of Montessori’s emphasis on the role of creativity in education.
            This week the theme of Exploration Camp was “A Visit to the Met,” meaning that the campers spent the week learning about a different famous artist each day and made their own individual versions of one of their pieces. On Friday the children learned about abstract art, studying artist Wassily Kandinksy. As the teacher showed the children the first painting, she asked them how they felt when they saw it. Without hesitating, they responded, “Funny! Sad! Happy! Happy, I feel happy!” Regardless of the answer, the teacher encouraged them to speak up, giving them the opportunity to consider and share their feelings. As the teacher went on to explain the craft, which included each child recreating parts (that would come together to become a whole) of Kandinsky’s “Squares with Concentric Circles,” one child asked, “Is it okay if we get glue on our hands?” The teacher paused and shifted the conversation back to the children, asking, “Well, what do you all think? Do you think Van Gogh got paint on his hands when he painted? Or Monet, Cassat, or Seurat?” The children’s capabilities were placed alongside those famous painters without question, something unique to Montessori’s approach. I saw recognition pass over the child’s face—she was just as capable and creative as the artists she’d learned about. All the children said, “Yes!” Westmont’s emphasis on empowering children and the role of creativity seemed stunningly clear to me. Westmont recognizes children’s natural abundance of creativity and uses it to empower children to both respect their own abilities and their own creativity. Creativity is often viewed as an aimless colorful quality in the adult world—one that needs to be stifled. After spending time with the children this week, I’m reminded that creativity is actually a liberating force and a gateway to independence.