Harvard and Montessori meet at Lake Atitlan

The four rung ladder of thought is: Description, Values, My Questions and Suggestions.

I was waiting out the rain at the vegetarian “Deli” because otherwise Hurricane Earl would be up to my ankles.  So, I settled for working the room; I met an art historian and a psychologist. Both generously shared about their work in several communities around Lake Atitlan.  They were proponents of Harvard’s Project Zero http://www.pz.harvard.edu/ and their job was to train teachers in the method. The art historian, Maribel Rivero Socarras had worked with the concepts of David Perkins in fostering “visual thinking” in children before she joined the team of four  working for Guatamala’s Fundasistemas. (http://www.transformacionlocal.org/) Maria Jose Matheu, the psychologist, facilitates parent training and teacher evaluations. Together, their group is positively impacting about 4,000 indigenous (K-12) students.

I asked how the parents (who have an illiteracy rate of 95%) respond to these nontraditional concepts. Ms. Matheu said that when she encounters resistance from parents, who have gotten by without very little education, she suggests that the children might have better lives knowing how to read and write. Following that, the parents gladly participate in discussions covering topics like health, sexual development, motivation and problem solving.

They invited me to see their work. So, after our meeting, I accompanied Ms. Matheu to a night school for fourth graders– the age range in this class of about twenty students was 12 years into late 20’s. The teacher put up a painting by a Latin American artist showing a Cantinflas-like character with two tears that were as tall as he. The questions were “What do you see?” and “Why do you say so?” (Although I could not make out the images that the artist embedded in the giant tears, I understood that the students could voice any opinion that they can back up.) The four rung ladder of thought is: Description, Values, My Questions and Suggestions.

The teacher was quite intentionally neutral throughout the process. And, as the observations were placed on the board the discussion got more and more lively.
The tears were there because:
“The man is tired of his bent over position.” (Carrying the tears)
“There is too much water.”
“There is cyanobacteria in the Lake.”
“There is not enough water to drink.”

The teacher was evaluated on at least 16 points regarding the “tools for thinking” such as if he allowed time to consider, if he was able to clarify and organize the flow of ideas, include other points of view, clarity of Pros and Cons, if the ideas were crative, if options and reasons were precisely noted.

The process was fascinating to watch — it was like an ideal community charrette. By the time we left the group was wildly brainstorming while the teacher directed and recorded the action. After this taste, I was very excited to see Ms. Rivero Socarras work with the much younger group at the grade school the next morning.

As agreed, we met near the mercado and, because we had missed the small bus, we took a crowded pickup truck (for 2 Quetzals) up the hill to Patanatic and negotiated the steep path down to the school. The first class was twenty-two 6th graders (with only 6 girls).

This class was presented with a lively poster showing a crowd in the streets in front of a church. These kids were preoccupied by their scheduled field day and their teacher was not as in control of them. They called out from their groups of 5 that they saw the church, the groups, a mirimba and perhaps vendors. They thought that everybody was in a procession because it was a fiesta or a market day and observed that people were in native dress (called “suits”) and that the people were enjoying themselves before the bell rang.

Because the next class could not be observed Ms. Rivero Socarras suggested that we get a look at the Montessori materials. These materials were handmade by the group of five and were very fine. Letters of sandpaper had been carefully pasted on colored cards, beads were on sticks of varying lengths corresponding to the number of beads, squares with different configurations of dots were in a make-believe frying pan to be flipped by a spatula. Each of these sensual learning tools were placed on a shelf where the kids could get to them. The adorable kids hugged Ms. Rivero Socarras and mugged for my camera.

At last, we went to the third grade class where the teacher used the “Tools for Thinking” on a government required subject rather than on a work of art. For this exercise the PNI matrix (Positive, Negative and Interesting) was well known to the students. They were to discuss the three indigenous dialects (other than Spanish) spoken around the Lake. After they had completed the process the transcribed this grid into their notebooks:

Express sentiments
We speak our own language
We can understand other idioms
We can read books to understand

Not understanding other idioms
Limitations on knowing others
Can’t Travel
Cant Transmit thoughts

What happens in language?
What if only Spanish were spoken?
What if there were no language?

Even if the girls were playing around with a ball and the boys putting on paper claws during the exercise, this was pretty profound thinking for any age. It is amazing to see Harvard making a difference out here.

Author: diane e. dreyfus

on the road until they put the lid down

6 thoughts on “Harvard and Montessori meet at Lake Atitlan”

  1. Very cool post. 95% illiteracy is staggering. I remember my anthro prof at University of Florida describing how the people he met in Guatemala had difficulties telling anecdotes in linear fashion; that non-linear concepts of time were used. Also, that since time = money concept didn’t exist, that people ‘valued’ their time differently. He was down their in the middle of the civil war in the 80’s helping with the families escaping the violence at the time and was recording older dialects that were dying out.
    Paper claws? Scuttling across floors of silent seas?

      1. Thanks for pointing out the “paper claws.” I never would have known if you hadn’t explained it! Of course, little boys WOULD think of something like that! LOL!

        I want to build a school on some of my (very small) building lots, and am interested in finding out more. I was thinking classes for art, music, dance, beading, computers and construction using recycled building materials. I hope to be working with LongWayHomeInc.org using used tires, rammed earth, plastic bottles filled with dirt, sand or adobe.

        Could Harvard and Montessori help here?

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