Science Fair

February 3, 2009

A very long weekend kept me from posting. It started Friday, which was my birthday. I took off in the middle of the day to see Slumdog Millionaire. What a fantastic gift that was! Saturday was a family dinner and celebration, and then Sunday was the Super Bowl. I’ll leave it to the sports bloggers to figure out reasons the referees were so eager to hand the game to the Steelers. The core mission of refereeing is fairness! I have to keep off that topic or I’ll be ranting for weeks. Instead, I want to rant a little about the reason I’m just now able to write my post at midnight on Monday.

My younger son is in fourth grade in a Montessori school. I have learned to love many things about Montessori. I have written articles for the school’s newsletter and adapted some of them for posts in the Parenting By Strengths blog under the category Mentorship.

I love how Montessori develops initiative. My son learns that if he goofs off on Monday and Tuesday he has a very busy Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. But he’s also figured out that if he applies himself on Monday and Tuesday he has a pretty easy time of it from Wednesday on.

I struggled when his teacher in first and second grade told me not to try to work with him at home on things he was learning because there are particular materials and tasks they use at school. I home schooled my older son for four years and home schooled my younger son through a first grade curriculum his kindergarten year before enrolling him in the Montessori school. It’s hard for me not to teach him. But I trusted that it was not my role to take over. Instead, I had to review and follow along and watch as he mastered tasks and eventually learned some amazing things.

But this year he has a science fair. We received a three-page handout two weeks before the projects were due. It gave a general overview of the scientific process of asking questions, establishing a hypothesis, and then testing the hypothesis. It had a nice circular drawing. It gave lots of examples of questions that make good science projects. But that was it.

I assumed they would be discussing the details of planning and doing an experiment in class. I assumed they would have resource books or pictures of examples or a packet of guidelines to show them how to put together the information for a presentation board. After a week of gentle questioning to encourage my son to work on his project, I figured he must not be paying attention when they discussed their projects in school. So I asked his teacher what guidelines he had given them and how I could best monitor what my son was doing. I didn’t want to step in and take over, since that’s not the Montessori way.

Turns out I was supposed to take over. The short handout was all the information given. There were no guidebooks or examples in the classroom. They weren’t even discussing the scientific method or how they were doing on their experiments in class! The teacher said that absolutely none of it was done in class, and it was up to the parents to guide the projects.

First, I was stunned. This was contrary to what I had learned about Montessori, where parents support what goes on in the class but don’t push their children to learn at a certain pace or try to teach them on their own. Second, I was surprised that, if we parents were supposed to lead and direct the projects, we weren’t told that, and we weren’t given guidelines on how to proceed.

I get stressed when there are expectations placed on me and I don’t know the criteria, the standards for performance, or what the heck I’m supposed to be doing. I didn’t take this very well. Fortunately, the science fair was delayed a week, but that gave me just under two weeks to help my son figure out his project and put together a display.

Along the way I realized that, if there are no specific guidelines for presenting the results, we had the freedom to decide how we would do it. I also realized that this is Montessori, so there’s no grade. If it’s horrible it’s horrible. If it’s perfect everyone knows mom or dad helped too much.

And this evening, as we rubber cemented the last section of text and the last photographs onto the display board, I shared my son’s excitement and pride in a job well done. We took on something that seemed scary at first – for him because it was new, and for me because I was so uptight about getting it right when I had no idea what “right” would look like. We met the challenge, we finished it, and we were successful.

It reminded me that there are a lot of things that seem frustrating or annoying at first, or just overwhelming by their scope or size. You can make progress going a step at a time, but one or two or more of the steps tend to be especially challenging or confusing. But when I take on these sorts of challenges and keep moving forward, I see the finished product coming together. I have to let go of high expectations and let close enough be close enough. But very little can compare with the sense of accomplishment I have when a large project is done.

Planning creatively around our natural gifts, talents, and passions is about feeling more comfortable and authentic, about enjoying life and work more and feeling fulfilled. But that doesn’t mean it’s all enjoyable, it’s all fulfilling, or it all flows easily. There are still things we have to do that feel awkward, clunky, annoying, and confusing.

But in the challenge, in the time of struggle, we find a gift or talent that helps us move past an obstacle. We get crystal clear vision about what is expected by others and what we expect of ourselves. And we hear our own values and core purpose talking us through it, making sure it reflects our unique selves and doesn’t conflict with our principles.

Okay, so it’s just some elementary science project about which light bulbs produce the most heat. But it taught me a lot that has little to do with science, and nothing at all to do with light bulbs!

May You Know the Joy of Sharing Your Gifts,

Steve Coxsey


One Response to “Science Fair”

  1. February 24, 2009 : On The Twisting Road on February 24th, 2009 9:11 am

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