Mirrors and Windows

When Tammy Oesting of ClassrooMechanics introduced the term “Mirrors and Windows and Sliding Doors” in the webinar which she led for Montessori Musings in the Autumn of 2020, I was very inspired by this analogy and felt it fitted so comfortably within my understanding of Montessori principles.  So with Wendelien’s help by finding further references to the phrase I went to explore.

In her 1988 paper, Curriculum as Window and Mirror, Emily Style invites us to explore a Curriculum which allows us to see reality through various window frames.

According to Style this type of a liberal curriculum needs conversations between students and teachers:

“Such dialogue requires the practice … and thinking as participants acknowledge the varied experiences of reality which frame individual human perspective.” 

She points out further, that learning does not take place in the abstract; it is both personal and contextual.  In other words, it needs to relate to the child’s personal story and must be meaningful to the child’s lived experience.

She elaborates by exploring what we understand by hearing the personal stories:

“The delightful truth is that sometimes when we hear another out, glancing through the window of their humanity, we can see our own image reflected in the glass of their window. The window becomes a mirror! And it is the shared humanity of our conversation that most impresses us even as we attend to our different frames of reference. “

It is not surprising that, in 1990, Dr Rudine Bishop borrowed this analogy when she chose to explore children’s literature and its power and capacity to explore stories as both the mirrors and windows of our experiences.

I do like the Styles reference to the whole curriculum encompassing the need for mirrors and windows because, particularly in the early years, learning is not linear and compartmentalised into subjects.  And, more than thirty years later, we are still challenged to recognise and value the power of interconnected learning where the stories of each and every one child are heard and used to create learning, mirroring that child’s understanding of the world, as we plan a new lesson or try to introduce a new topic. But above all these individual stories should enable each one of us to care and feel the story of the other – creating a sense of connectedness and belonging. 

By unforeseen serendipity, just as I was pondering writing this blog, I received a link to a Ted talk presented by Elif Shafak.  I see her adult focused reflection on the power of fiction as making a direct link with Bishop’s writing on the power of children’s literature. Shafak urges us to listen to stories, because they allow us “to leap over cultural walls, embrace differences, feel what others feel”.

All this research led me to reflect on the Montessori classroom where we pride ourselves on opening the windows for our children in the cultural area.  An area of learning I came to love as a student and an area which challenged my work with students because, so often, it became so much driven by the student/teachers’ loves, experiences and interest translated into lesson plans and schemes of work, forgetting to hear the children’s voices and not offering a mirror to their own stories.  

These concerns are reflected in an early book by Vivian Gussin Paley The White Teacher first published in 1973.  I love Paley’s honesty and clarity of writing; re-reading the book I feel overwhelmed by the challenges she posed almost 50 years ago and yet it is only in the last couple of years that they have entered the arena of education dialogue, and white teachers like myself have started to listen to the powerful voices of our marginalised colleagues.  Those of you who listened to our conversation with Dr Stella Louis last summer may remember that this was the book she recommended as useful reading at the end of her presentation.

The power of Paley’s work lies in the sharing of children’s stories from her classroom; in capturing their voices on the pages of her many books.  And this has prompted me to share my very recent conversation with our almost four-year-old granddaughter. In our home we have a portrait of my mother as a young woman, painted by her first husband when they first fell in love in the late 1930’s.  This portrait has been a real point of interest to our granddaughter – she has commented on the way the young woman’s hand is placed on her chest and on her plaited hair. Asking something about the portrait on her frequent visits. Then the other day she asked about her name. I replied “Marushka”. Without much hesitation she responded “It is not an English name, is it?” I elaborated by explaining that she was my mother.

I came to ponder on this magnificent example of her ability to make connections and express them appropriately.  Drawing on what she knows about her Welsh family and their language, she often comments on her dad’s pronunciation of words such as grass and bath.   She also knows that her cousins sing in a Welsh choir and for several months tried to mimic the Welsh words of their songs captured on video, whilst remembering the tune really well. She also uses Spanish greetings learned from her beloved teacher Lorena who left nursery last summer – Adios Amigos and Buenas Noches have become familiar family phrases.  And my Czech lullaby’s and nursery rhymes are often requested at bedtime.  All of these contribute to her understanding not only of different languages, but also to who she is. Like all children she is a multifaceted, complex and intricate being to whom, we, her immediate and extended family and friends, offer a mirror to see herself as a unique human situated in this very special time in human history.

I would like to invite you to join us at our Connecting Montessori Europe webinar on Tuesday 2 March at 18.00 (London time) / 19.00 (CET) when we are joined by Hannah Khianni as she reflects on Mirrors and Windows as observed and experienced by children in the Montessori nursery where she works.

Barbara Isaacs, February 2021

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