By Brenda Erickson, Rotary Club of Peachtree City, Georgia, USA, and Montessori school teacher
It is quite interesting to consider the roots of empowerment in a school environment. I have seen empowerment happen in the smallest of ways. For instance, yesterday I heard a teacher tell a group of students, “You can go anywhere you want to go!” He wanted the learners to know they were free to express themselves within the limits of his assignment. “Make this assignment yours!” That invitation encouraged and confirmed the uniqueness of each individual learner. The results were no less than amazing. The learners felt intellectually safe. They were given the space to be themselves. It only took six words to plant the seed of empowerment: “You may go anywhere you want!”
That same invitation can empower a learner when referring to physical space. So many times I have entered classrooms filled with wood, metal, and/or plastic. There was no place left for the child. There was no floor space for body and mind to spread out. Learning happens when a child is both physically and intellectually engaged. Required desk seating is a form of control, one that can neutralize learning. As one child said, “When I have to sit in a desk, I am not able to focus on anything other than how squirmy I am.”
In our visits to scores of preschool classrooms for our cub program for basic literacy that teaches letter-sound associations – Souns – we see dramatic contrasts in physical environments. Less furniture appears to translate into more engaged learning. We encourage teachers to include movement in their lessons, as we know a moving child is a learning child. In classrooms with wall-to-wall desks, that is not possible. There is such positive energy in a classroom with space to offer the simple option, “Where do you want to do your work?” Addressing this topic, one child said, “Choosing the space you work in may seem insignificant, but it is not at all! A little freedom goes a long way!”
Empowering a learner is not in the words of an assignment or in the furniture, it is in the spaces in between. It is in the permissions granted to be a kid, to be trusted with choices. Offer tables, desks, or floor. Give rigorous assignments, and then allow the child to choose within those limits.
Another student summed up the topic with, “When I am able to sit where I want to, I feel like I have endless creativity and imagination!”