Imposing Classroom Poverty               

‘We need not impose poverty, but it must not frighten us, as it is the most favorable condition for spiritual development we can find, if accepted with assent…An object scientifically constructed, offered to a child who has nothing, is taken with passionate interest and awakens mental concentration and meditation.’

– Dr Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, Chapter XVIII, The New Teacher.

As a parent, it would seem strange to be asked by a teacher to carefully search my daughter before class and take away from her any toys or objects that might distract including, say, jackets with zips or buttons or even gloves with tassels. Strange because it seems to me a natural parental instinct to dress and accessorise ones child. It’s normal and humanising and I personally believe my child is more than just an animal.

But as a teacher I feel the need to experiment somewhat radically with a practice of imposing poverty, as Montessori might put it, towards helping students concentrate and also to ask parents to participate in searching for and removing unnecessary and distracting possessions from their children before class.

Assent as Montessori suggests is vital. My in-class rule (and it does help if parents care enough to use their wiles and words to manufacture a degree of assent to this practice before class) is to take any thing obviously distracting a child away from them. I like it when this happens calmly and silently (sometimes there is resistance) and part of assent for me is, albeit after the fact, placing the confiscated object on a nearby table in general view of the child so they feel less robbed and more isolated from their possession [1].

Without distractions, I do indeed find that the children in my class can concentrate better on the different ‘objects’ I present them (whether that ‘object’ is game, an activity or content related artwork contributed by Wenli) and learn with concentration.

But removing distractions completely seems to be impossible. Below are photos of some of the possessions I have recently tabled. Naturally I’d be grateful if parents succeedeed in cleaning out their childs pockets of marbles and parts of plastic toys and suggested the child leave their wristwatch in the family car. But perhaps teachers will always be confiscating the jacket of a child who thinks it’s cool to suddenly wear it covering their face for quick laughs. And who knows from where the child got that chip of wood or that scrap of broken balloon!

[1] In my particular context, the design of the classroom does not assist me with imposing poverty. The children don’t have lockers, for example, just outside the classroom where they can store extra possessions as a matter course – though I wish we had lockers and am comfortable imposing ‘power’ here generally as defined by Michel Foucault (Part IV, Chapter 2, The History of Sexuality).

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