“Looking at Leaves” by Kate Endle
I want to demystify the process of finding a preschool. I will do my best through this series (read the intro to series here) to give an unbiased look at each type of school so that you can take all of the information and make your own decision. If any of your questions are not answered, feel free to leave a comment or email me – this is meant to be helpful to you! Also, if you know of any great resources I haven’t mentioned or just want to share a tip, leave a comment and I am sure the other readers will greatly appreciate it.
Let’s begin with Montessori. Full disclosure: I was a Montessori kid. I went to Montessori school from preschool through fifth grade and overall, I loved it. Of course, I had no idea at the time what made it Montessori. The Montessori method is one of the most popular forms of education in America with over 5,000 schools across the country, over 300 of which are public schools; yet it is often misunderstood. Who was Maria Montessori? Is Montessori only good for quiet kids? Does it give adequate academic preparation? Do they learn social skills? What are all of those special materials about? What do they do all day? Let’s find out.
A Day In The Life:
As the children arrive, they put away their lunches and hang up their own coats. The classroom is quiet and peaceful, and the children settle into the morning work time. Plants, art, and soothing music create a calming atmosphere more like a home than a typical classroom. Maps, fossils, artifacts, scientific apparatus, and lots of hands-on learning materials are clustered into neatly organized learning areas to increase the visual appeal and entice children into exploring. Desks, even in the upper grades, are not lined up in rows, but are clustered so that children can sit in self-selected small groups or alone.
A girl approaches the mathematics materials and begins working with unit blocks and beads, getting a feel for what addition and subtraction actually look like. A boy gets settled into a comfy corner with a book. Two girls are pulling out a language arts activity to work on together, and they spread the materials out on the floor. Another child is working on a water pouring activity, carefully pouring water back and forth between a small pitcher and several little cups. When he is finished, he wipes off the tray with a towel and places the activity back on the shelf. The teacher, who has been observing the children from her desk at the back of the room, now approaches a pair of boys who have been painting at the easels, and asks if they would like to do a math lesson with her – one boy says “No, thanks” and walks off to work on a puzzle. The other boy says he would like to, so he and the teacher sit down together in the math area. The morning continues in this way until the teacher taps on a little chime to signal lunchtime.
The children get their lunches, put on sweaters and coats, and file quietly outside to the yard, where they will eat lunch and play. It’s noisier outside, and when they finish their lunches the children play basketball, hopscotch, and swing on the monkey bars. Groups of children gather to talk and draw pictures, and soon it is time to go back inside. In the afternoon, their teacher gives the whole class a brief painting lesson and then allows time for the children to practice on their own while soft music plays in the background. The class then has more quiet work time, with children choosing their own activities. Later on in the afternoon, their teacher calls them together to sit in a circle on the floor: she reads them a story, and then introduces a book making project that they will be working on over the next several weeks.
The core of the Montessori day is a block of uninterrupted time. This three hour period is known as the Work Cycle, and it is a time for children to get immersed in activities of their choosing, either individually or in small groups. If a child is not doing anything the teacher will suggest an activity, but will not force it if the child says “no”. The teacher uses this time to observe the children, stepping in occasionally to give brief one-on-one lessons.
Curriculum is integrated throughout all of the subjects, and spirals, returning to the same topics from many different angles. For example, if the class is studying the Cherokee people, they will learn about their history, read Cherokee stories, listen to traditional music, watch a dance performance, do an art project, and write their own myths. Traditional schools tend to cram in as many different topics as possible, touching on each subject only once. In Montessori school, topics are revisited in different ways year after year, building a more complex understanding of the subject.
In addition to the standard subjects (language arts, mathematics, science & nature, geography, history, foreign language, dance, music and visual arts), Montessori schools emphasize Living Skills – these are practical, every day tasks like washing dishes, pouring water, sweeping, polishing silverware, cooking, baking, and even carpentry. This is included in the curriculum in part to create a home like atmosphere, but also because that’s what children want to do! In a Montessori preschool there is no play kitchen, but the children use real kitchen tools and do real household activities.
Up to three grade levels can be combined in one class. This is challenging, but it also has its rewards: this means that a wide range of materials are always available in a Montessori classroom, so precocious young children will be able to use the more complex materials, and the older children who need more practice with basic skills can get that, too. Maria Montessori was ahead of the curve in realizing that children benefit from extended relationships with their teachers and classmates, rather than moving to a new class and new teacher each year. As a teacher myself, I can say from experience that being able to “follow” the same children from one year to the next is a magnificent opportunity. The parents and teachers are able to develop closer, more comfortable relationships, and the children really start to feel comfortable at school.
Traditional textbooks are not used in Montessori classrooms, and homework is rare. Rather, each classroom generally has its own high quality library, along with any additional literature and teaching materials that the teacher chooses. Individual Montessori schools vary widely in their approach to homework, but it is not usually given. Some schools have added homework in the upper grades, but even this usually looks much different from homework in a traditional school.
Background & Philosophy:
Maria Montessori, a bold, intelligent woman, was the first female doctor in Italy. A member of the Sapienza University of Rome’s Psychiatric Clinic, Dr. Montessori began her career working with children with developmental disabilities. Her experiences with these children, who had difficulty learning in traditional classrooms, led her to seek out new methods of teaching. She founded the first Montessori school, Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House), in 1907 as a way to test out her theories of education on a developmentally normal group of children. Dr. Montessori sought to make this school feel like a second home for the children in her care, who came from the inner cities of Rome. In a traditional school we expect to see the teacher at the head of the class, with the students attention focused on this one person, the source of all knowledge; Dr. Montessori did not see herself as a teacher in this sense of the word:
“Ours was a house for children, rather than a real school. We had prepared a place for children, where a diffused culture could be assimilated, without any need for direct instruction…yet these children learned to read and write before they were five, and no one had given them any lessons.”
- Dr. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
Dr. Montessori came to believe that children naturally absorb cultural knowledge through direct experience. Essentially, this means that children are very good at learning on their own, without much help from us. What we can do is to provide children with a rich diversity of tools and materials to explore their world. Maria Montessori developed a set of hands-on learning materials, designed for children to use without the help of a teacher. The materials teach one isolated concept at a time with concepts building upon one another, and they are still a core part of the Montessori classroom today.
Montessori teachers do very little direct instruction, which is what we tend to think of as teaching (the teacher standing up, giving the whole class a lesson) – yet children in Montessori schools tend to perform as well or better than their peers in traditional schools in all of the core subjects. How is this possible? Well, Dr. Montessori would likely say that if children are absorbing all of the “lessons” they need directly from the environment, then having a teacher giving whole-class instruction would only interrupt this process.
What Montessori Schools Do Well:
- Encourage intrinsic motivation, politeness, care taking, and autonomy.
- Create a comfortable atmosphere where children feel at home. Speaking from my own experience as a Montessori child I can say that I felt totally comfortable at school. I am a naturally quiet, contemplative person, and I did not think of myself as “shy” until after I left Montessori school! I did not feel shy, because I never felt uncomfortable there.
- A child who is impulsive or easily distracted can also do very well in Montessori: it can provide needed balance and help the child settle into a routine of longer, focused activity.
- Teach children at their own individual level, wherever that may be. A wide range of materials are available, so children can always find work at the right level.
- Montessori materials are designed for a single purpose, and the children are discouraged from using the materials in anything but the “right” way. They are quite strict about this, too! I still remember a teacher correcting me for drawing with a colored pencil the wrong way, and I was furious! This is the biggest opposition to the Montessori method from preschools that encourage free expression and open-ended activities.
- That peace and quiet is highly prized, and a child who is regularly disturbing the class may be asked to leave a private program. Some parents do not mind at all – it means you know that your child’s class is a peaceful place. Other parents feel this is an unfair practice.
- There is no dress up area or play kitchen; there are only practical activities. Dramatic play is usually a key part of other preschool programs – why not here? What if that is your child’s favorite?
- Some parents simply don’t like the fact that the children choose their own activities.
“Wonder” by Rosemarie Brown
Is Montessori Right For Your Family?
If the sound of a peaceful, quiet, orderly classroom and lots of independent work appeals to you, it’s worth looking into Montessori schools in your area. This makes up the core of the Montessori method, so it probably will not be a good fit if you really don’t like the idea of the teacher taking more of an observational role. If you do decide to explore Montessori schools, keep in mind that individual schools vary widely: just because it is called Montessori does not mean that it will include all of the features I have described in this article. Pick out a few schools, ask for a tour, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and then go with your gut feeling. It is just as important for you as the parent to feel good about the school as it is for your child.
The Montessori Foundation & International Montessori Council – This is the best online resource I have found on Montessori education. They have a wealth of full-text articles in their archives, a School Search to find Montessori schools both in the US and internationally, and teacher training information.
Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) – Founded in 1929 by Dr. Maria Montessori, this organization provides guidance for Montessori teacher training programs and schools around the world through affiliated societies in many countries.
North American Montessori Teachers’ Association (NAMTA) – A US affiliate of AMI; takes a slightly different approach to teacher training
Books by and about Maria Montessori (on WorldCat) – WorldCat is an international library database that you can use to find materials in over 10,000 libraries around the world
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