With Beauty, Comes Responsibility

Life on earth is beautiful. There is pain and imperfection, but that does not detract from the beauty that is present. Not only is there beauty in the natural world, but also in carefully crafted man-made things, and in nonmaterial things, such as relationships, ideas, music, and poetry. I find that in most cases, beauty needs to be cared for, cultivated, and preserved. Beauty is more fragile, more easily damaged, and more costly than the ugly or strictly utilitarian object. Have you ever noticed that people sometimes shy away from beauty because of the responsibility that comes with it? People use paper plates for dinner instead of the good china because they do not have to take care of the paper plates afterwards and besides, something could be broken and then there would not be a complete set sitting in a cabinet any more. Having fake flowers is easier than tending a live plant and a plastic toy is cheaper and more easily replaced than a hand painted wooden one. More expensive clothing and jewelry remain in the closet so that nothing happens to them and no risks are taken.

I have been thinking about this as I have been considering how important beauty is to the Montessori philosophy. Check out that blog post here. In our preschool classroom, we have lots of beautiful things made out of wood, glass, polished metal, etc. These objects are fairly sturdy as they are designed for children, but they are not indestructible. Things get broken sometimes. But when something gets broken, the child learns the consequences of their roughness and we replace the object. I am proud when I think of how fortunate the children at our school are to have so many beautiful things to interact with, even though they may cost more and are more easily damaged than cheaper plastic objects. I would say there is wisdom in making sure both your family heirlooms and your young children are safe from one another, but I think it is a wonderful thing to gradually allow children the responsibility of beautiful and more valuable objects. .

I think the responsibility that comes with beauty is especially relevant to Christians. One historic stereotype of a Christian is a person who is extremely utilitarian and minimalistic with their possessions, not looking for anything beyond the practical. I am all in favor of using money wisely and not indulging in excess, but I do not think God put beauty around us for nothing. Indeed, God gave Adam and Eve the responsibility of being caretakers for the Garden of Eden. For some reason, I do not think this included merely tending the most nutritious and hearty of vegetables. God created a huge variety of foods for our enjoyment, not one practical food to forever satisfy our hunger. He also created flowers and plants that were not intended to be eaten at all. They were created for beauty and enjoyment. He also created incredible landscapes which may not be practical at all for dwelling in or producing from, but they are pleasing to the person who views them or travels through them.

I visited a Christian mission in Mexico that has many wonderful, practical ministries to the community, including an orphanage, drug rehab centers, food and clothing available for the needy, a volunteer fire and rescue department, wheelchair equipment, special needs ministry, etc. They also have a large garden, with a few full-time employees in charge of the garden. This mission, run mostly off of generous donations, located in a desert region of Mexico, maintains a half-acre garden! They do not waste the little fruit that comes from the garden, but most of the plants are trees and flowers for visual enjoyment and to create a beautiful, peaceful place to pray. Why would they do that? Why would they spend the effort, the time, the precious water, and the money for the staff, in order to maintain this garden?  Because they know that God delights in beauty and that effort spent in cultivating and preserving beauty is not wasted.

Chelsea Mexico 2013 040

I think that more Christians need to have this attitude about the earth. Too often, those in the Christian community laugh at environmental projects and are just as wasteful with their resources as the average American. Though we know the earth will someday be made new and all of the old will pass away, we should not treat the earth as we do disposable plates. We cannot use the earth harshly just because we know it will end. Instead, we need to treat it as the china plate. We have been privileged to use this valuable gift from God and it must serve us until the proper time. While we are waiting for the renewal of all things, we should carry it carefully so that it does not chip or crack prematurely. It is meant to be used, but to be used properly and delicately. Alert attention should be paid to its care. We cannot shy away from our responsibility as care takers of the earth.

With beauty, comes responsibility. And beauty is worth the effort of responsibility.

Photo is my own

The Pink Tower of Montessori Academia

There are a lot of things that I cannot take with me from my school when I leave in August. I am going to have to say goodbye to some great coworkers, leave some adorable children I have grown to love, and I won’t have access to all of their really cool toys. You didn’t hear me say toys, I meant work! But I have felt so privileged to be a teacher’s aide at a Montessori school this year because I have learned so many valuable lessons about teaching through this unique method. I do not have official Montessori certification, but I would be happy to pass on some of the top things that I have learned through observation.

First, children have so much potential and can do some amazing things. The free structure of the Montessori method allows children to choose what they want to focus on learning. Even though children are encouraged to work in different subject areas throughout the week and they sometimes do group activities or art projects, most of their time at school is left in their hands. I have seen kindergartners teaching themselves division because they already felt comfortable with multiplication and wanted to push themselves further. Other students became creative and pin punched maps of the United States or the continent of Europe. By the way, pin punching is great for fine motor development, takes more time and concentration than scissors so the students are required to focus, and the grip is similar to holding a pencil.

Patience is a mighty tool. In a Montessori setting, not only can students choose what to do, they are encouraged to do it on their own. When a teacher has the patience to let a child work at something for a few minutes (or a half hour), that they could have done for the child in a few seconds, the child gains so much independence and ability. Furthermore, after a few tries, the student will start doing it on their own and you can focus on something else! On an observation of a Montessori elementary classroom, I saw a student (probably 1st or 2nd grade) create labels on a computer to go with the work he had just completed. He had trouble printing them though so he went over to the printer, opened it, fiddled around with it, ran a couple tests, and after the problem was fixed, printed his labels. Goodness! I’m afraid to try to fix printer problems sometimes, but this young student had been trained to be independent, to problem solve, and to be persistent until he accomplished what he wanted to. The teacher during this time was aware of what was going on, but continued to work with other children who were being given new lessons or needed more help focusing their attention on a task.

With beauty, comes responsibility. Part of the Montessori philosophy is that children thrive in a beautiful environment. Our classroom really is beautiful. When I walked into the classroom on my first day of work, I just stopped at the door and stared a while. There were high ceilings and lots of natural light. Low wooden shelves to hold the work were arranged in patterns around the room. The walls were a light, neutral color with only a few pieces of art work hung on them. I was so unprepared for it because I was used to classrooms being utilitarian and often overly cluttered with bright, distracting colors and images everywhere you look. Many of the works contain parts that are glass, instead of plastic. Wood is also common in the classroom. For example, both the Pink Tower and Brown Stair, sensorial tools, are made out of wood. There are also tons of small parts. And everything has an exact method for being put away. Sounds like a nightmare for a preschool teacher, right? Not really. Yes, there is sometimes some clean up, but on a normal basis, teachers do not prep or clean up the work. That is the student’s responsibility. If something gets broken, they help sweep up the pieces. If a water work spills, they get a mop or rag. If literally a thousand pieces are strewn across the floor (aww, bead chains) then the child gets to work picking each piece up and putting it in the right place. The students have a wonderful environment to work in, but they are required to keep it up. Because of their beautiful, potentially fragile work, they learn the consequences of carelessness better than a child who is only given plastic, unbreakable toys that are resistant to harsh play.

Respect should flow both ways. When a teacher realizes a child’s potential and expects them to live up to their responsibility, they are treating the child with the respect that they would any other person. You would not cut off your peer in the middle of talking just because they could not think of how to put a question, but I hear adults cut kids off all of the time when they take too long to say or ask something. In my school, (I am not sure if this is a universal Montessori principle) we refer to the children as “friends” when we address them, instead of “boys and girls” or “kids”. That brings us down to their level. When we talk to a child, especially in a disciplining situation, we kneel down to their eye level. Personally, I have also realized that respecting a child includes answering their questions truthfully. I never promise a child something I cannot or do not intend to give them. If they are inquisitively asking something that adults avoid talking about, I try to figure out the question behind their question and answer as simply and tactfully as I can. Also for this reason, I never talk to a child as if Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, etc. are real. Personal conviction, but feel free to disagree.

These are just a few of the things that I have learned and hope to carry with me throughout my teaching experience, whether I am in a Montessori classroom or not.

Photos from http://photopin.com/
photo credit: riekhavoc via photopin cc
photo credit: Kevron via photopin cc
photo credit: jazzijava via photopin cc