For those of us in Montessori, the idea that one should feel shamed, embarrassed, dumb, or sad in connection with a normal urge is the antithesis of what we want for children. We want children to feel respected and supported. We want to be an aid to life, in service to the human potential. And yet, one place where it can be hard to overcome our own obstacles and conditioning is in connection with the natural tendency for children to talk! Because I’m here to tell you, if elementary children are not shamed, embarrassed, put down, or saddened into silence, then chances are they will be talking. Often. About everything.
The most important thing about spoken language in the elementary is that it should be recognized as important work for the children. “They don’t want to work; all they want to do is talk,” is sometimes what we hear from Montessori teachers. What’s needed here is a wider, truer definition of work, because the talking is the work. What happens when children talk to each other? How can we see this talking as developmentally appropriate and beneficial? We start by recognizing that when children are talking, they’re doing a lot of cognitively and emotionally important things. They are noticing, attending, perceiving, commenting, describing, explaining, abstracting, comparing, connecting, debating, defending, experimenting, opining, synthesizing, bonding, and expressing, to name just a few. Whey would we want to interfere with that? Our role as adults is not to keep them from talking, but to help them find interesting and useful things to talk about.
Over the years, I’ve experimented with some different structures or rules to help the conversations in my elementary classrooms be useful and productive for the children. “We talk about whatever we want at lunch,” is a good one, but some practitioners find that it doesn’t support the children enough. “We don’t talk about television or video games or movies at school,” is one that worked for a while in one community. I explained to the children that what children are allowed to see on screens was a family decision made at home, and out of respect for each other’s families, we kept our focus in school on what could be shared at school without compromising those decisions.
But the most useful “rule” about talking was this one: We talk about our work. Talking is a sign of interest. So if the children are talking about something, they are telling you they’re interested in it! And you, the adult, can probably think of a dozen ways to relate what they’re talking about to something they might explore or work on in your Montessori classroom. So join in the conversation and redirect them! “You know, what you’re saying reminds me of a lesson I’ve been wanting to give you…” We can tolerate a few irreverent noun booklets or sentence analysis sentences about the Portland Timbers; we can turn a discussion of Halloween candy into a word problem that can be solved with the checkerboard. And any conversation gets deeper and more philosophical if the Fundamental Human Needs Chart is guiding it.
Furthermore, the children can share in the responsibility of making their conversations useful and productive. “Oh, I hear that you’re talking about Disney World/ghosts/your new Nikes/your grandma’s cat that got hit by a car/Miley Cyrus/etc. How can you make that your work?” Warmth, humor, and the absolute conviction that they are here to work and they will be happier if they’re working is what you, the adult, can bring to the conversation. When we can see the children’s talk as a natural manifestation of a healthy community, we can guide them in positive, pro-social ways.