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Focus with MS Principal Ana Fox Chaney

Concentrate. Pay attention. As adults we imagine hearing (or delivering) these directives with a frown. We think of focus as elusive but necessary, maintained through discipline, with brow furrowed, a battle against distraction. But properly cultivated and supported, focus actually comes naturally from engagement with appropriate tasks.
Maria Montessori, who like Elisabeth Irwin believed passionately in fitting the school to the child, described concentration as the “first essential” to a child’s development. She observed that it takes time to ‘warm up’ to a task, but for a child who is focused - fully immersed in their work - happiness will follow. This is one of the central arguments of the mindfulness movement: multitasking and distraction are correlated with discontent, attention to the present task with happiness. In the digital age, it feels like the forces of distraction are many and the incentives to sustain focus are few. We’d all like to have better concentration - for ourselves and our children - but where does it come from?
According to Montessori, concentration in children arises naturally when the task is appropriate and when it’s uninterrupted. We have all experienced the pleasure that comes with focus - the satisfaction of being ‘in the zone.’ And when you’re there, your effort feels effortless: you’d rather keep going than stop. In the middle school, we plan for this by situating long-term, deep-diving projects at the center of each year. We make space for warming up to tasks, for delving, mulling-over, revisiting and mastering.
Three out of four of the middle school grades are in the thick of their year’s grade level project, their opportunity to develop and practice sustained attention. In fifth grade it is the Kimetic (Egyptian) Tomb, in sixth the Medieval Guilds, in seventh (already past) the Cultures In Contact Museum and in the eighth, the Social Justice Project. Students spend 20, 45, 60 minutes at a time, scaffolded by teachers, researching a topic of their choosing. Then they spend comparable stretches writing, re-writing, creating artifacts, and presenting aloud to others. They return to these projects day after day for weeks. This sustained attention to a topic - irrigation in ancient Egypt, for example, or medieval Persian poetry - is how we cultivate the habit of focus. Through the careful selection of tasks, and creating uninterrupted space in the day and the curriculum to return to them, concentration develops. This immersion not only builds the important disposition, but yields a useful byproduct: pleasure, satisfaction, fun.