Welcome to Our Classroom!

I started my new position as a Teaching Assistant at Millhopper Montessori School this week. We spent the days preparing our room for the 25 preschoolers and kindergartners that will join us on Monday. It’s an inviting space full of work that 4 and 5 year old hands can’t wait to use and learn from.

Montessori classrooms are usually unique, put together based on the materials chosen by the teacher from their own stock and what they think will both interest and advance their student’s development. But, most Montessori classrooms are characterized by materials dedicated to certain subjects that comprise much of the Montessori curriculum.

The Sensorial curriculum has materials designed mostly by Maria Montessori that encourage children to develop their various senses. Like most Montessori work, it’s designed for students to be able to manipulate, but it also aims to isolate one of a child’s senses, whether visual, tactile, or gustatory (among others). Children get an introduction to geometry through these materials and develop their ability and vocabulary to discriminate between sizes, textures, smells, tastes, colors, etc.  These skills serve as a strong foundation to later math work, as well as encouraging students to problem solve and become researchers – finding a variety of answers to big questions, like how many rhombi can be made from putting together a variety of triangles.

In a typical pre-primary Montessori classroom, children ages 3-6 share the space and the language materials, meaning, some children are just learning their letters, and others are reading at 1st or 2nd grade levels. As such, the language materials are varied and extensive, comprised often of naming, spelling, or matching object names with movable letters. Montessori also places a heavy emphasis on auditory and verbal language development; we not only spend a large amount of time reading stories and sharing songs and rhymes, but place an emphasis on using the real names for even the most complex things and giving students an opportunity to develop their vocabularies  through interaction with the environment.

Montessori math extends from the Sensorial materials and spans a spectrum of learning to recognize and write numerals to dynamic multiplication and division with numbers in the thousands. All of these learning goals are achieved with the use of manipulatives, from wooden numerals, to golden beads representing units, tens, hundreds, and thousands. Before heading to 1st grade, most students will begin to move toward abstraction, making calculations mentally without manipulatives to aid them. Math materials can be expanded into weights and measures, money, and other areas as students’ skills demand.

Practical Life
The Practical Life area is foundational to the Montessori 3-6 classroom, serving as a connection to home and a place where all students can work to build their manual skills that will support them throughout their time at Montessori and their independence at home. These activities serve to develop basic skills for the youngest children in the class, like grasping, twisting, and caring for the environment, and as a point of rejuvenation for older children who need to reenergize after doing complex work in other areas of the classroom. The area encompasses art, food preparation, and care of person and environment. Students learn how to independently clean up after themselves doing everything from blowing their nose and hand washing, to sweeping the classroom and doing dishes.

Other Areas
These are the main areas of the classroom, but most include science and culture work as well. Every teacher makes their Montessori classroom unique, and each group of students demands materials that meet their own needs, so a classroom might look different not only from year to year but from month to month. 

*Views expressed in this post are my own and not necessarily shared by Millhopper Montessori School.

Full Circle

I have taken more than 20 trips around the sun since I first walked into Danville Montessori School, knowing little about what awaited me. I left feeling enormously grateful for the education I was afforded and have carried nuggets of the Montessori philosophy with me ever since.

Now, it is with great excitement that I share that I will be embarking on another Montessori journey in just a few short weeks — to become a teacher. I will spend most of my summer learning how to craft the Montessori environment and then spend next year as an intern in a classroom full of 25 four- and five-year-olds starting their own Montessori experience. I will have the opportunity to work side-by-side a veteran teacher while actively applying what I learned in the classroom to see how all of the Montessori pieces come together.

Despite feeling like I’m fulfilling a lifelong dream, I couldn’t have told you this was something I wanted five years ago. I’m still not confident that it’s what I want to do for the next 40 years, but I am absolutely certain that it’s a step in the right direction. So here’s to new adventures and bringing life full circle!

What Makes a Good Day?

When I read “What do I expect from my children’s elementary school? Certainly not this“, I was immediately struck by one thing: it does not describe the school I work at. This was especially true this week, my first week back after Winter Break, when teachers seemed reenergized and eager to pull out some of their best material to share with their charges. Despite my frustrations with my school and the overarching system, this mom’s reflections helped me to identify some of the best things that my current school is doing.

For my elementary-school-aged children, I care more about whether or not they love going to school than their academic progress.I am clever enough to know that if they are enjoying themselves at school, they will learn.

I cannot more appreciate this particular sentiment. Of all the reflections from this piece, this is the one I wish my school had more of. I imagine many of my students’ parents would espouse a similar view, but when pressed (and even through their interactions with their children) most of them are highly concerned with academics. We have students who were not allowed to watch TV for months over AR points. One was threatened with Christmas being cancelled for the same reason. Multiple parents have grasped casual moments with the teacher to ask, “where does my third grader rank in this class?” Some parents do homework for their kids or apply generous pressure regarding grades. And of all the third grade classes at my school, we have the least involved parents. If more parents were talking to the school about how to make their child’s day phenomenal, I think they might be surprised by how their academic progress soared.

Just because students may have to sit in an office for eight hours a day when they are adults, doesn’t mean that they should have to start practicing it now as children. It is like saying to a 10-year-old, “One day you’re going to pay taxes, so I’m going to keep 50 percent of your birthday money from Grandma because I want you to get used to it.”

I absolutely love this analogy and my school has plusses and minuses in this department. On the downside, the elementary day is exceptionally long — two full hours longer than the public schools in town. And we expect students to spend an awful lot of time sitting in chairs, standing in line, or just generally suppressing play during that extended time. On the upside, all of our students go to PE four times a week. We have recess two, sometimes three, times a day. It is common practice to not only extend recess, but to offer additional playtime if the students need it. Our school recognizes that a good lap around the playground is more effective than a mark on a behavior chart could ever be.

Elementary school should be about exploration and exposure to vast amounts of very well-written books. Writing should be an opportunity to capture observations and imagination in a tangible form. Elementary education should include learning about history through storytelling, art and music. It should be about dancing and singing and playing while developing social skills, communication skills and interpersonal awareness…Elementary school science should be about questions and wonders, experiments and all things messy.

This week in reading class, we started Charlotte’s Web. I promptly re-read the classic and was impressed by its language, depth, and simple ability to engage. The kids love it, and all want baby pigs of their own; most importantly, it’s a stretch book for many of their skill levels and they are learning from it.

In library class, every student was given the outline of a book, spine included, and told to design a cover of a book they would write. They got to create, design, decorate, and shelve their own “stories,” empowering future authors in a half-hour.

In Spanish class, we spent half of the class watching videos and dancing to learn prepositions. Students got to walk like an Egyptian, waddle like a penguin, and swim their way through vocabulary. Before the break, the students learned about Los Tres Reyes Magos and how the holidays are celebrated in many Spanish speaking countries — in Spanish!

Our science project of the week? Dissecting owl pellets. Students spent a full hour working in small teams to discover what their owl ate and identify the tiny bones they found. A bit gross? Sure. A touch messy? Certainly. Engaging? As good as it gets. The kids were set loose with instructions and the tools they needed to learn, and they succeeded. While they were absorbed in this project, social strife between teammates dissolved instantly, students built structures to make sure everyone would have equal opportunity with the tools, teams worked together to not only find the bones, but to identify them and share their discoveries. They even forgot it was lunch time!

Music class kicked off our drama unit. What will they do? But of course, Pirates! The Musical! The entire third grade spent three hours of their week singing, dancing, and auditioning for a production that they will put on in March. Every grade does this, committing hours upon hours for two-plus months so that the kiddos can perform. And after seeing them engage with it this week, I could not be more inspired by the power of the arts to teach and engage.

Perhaps our success is proven by the fact that most of our students would say, “I had a good day” when they leave. Despite day-to-day frustrations and imperfect lessons, our students are happy overall and enjoying school.

Rules, Rules, Rules

Three school days into my third grade experience and I’ve learned one major thing:

A lot of third grade is about following rules.

We have rules about when and how students can talk, walk, play, think, read, eat, go to the bathroom, and just about any other activity they might do during the school day.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about these rules, partially because of my role as a rule enforcer, and partially because, as I mentioned in Learning While Overwhelmed, I have a bit of a questionable relationship with rules. I have nearly always felt that traditional schools are overbearing with their rules, and have worried about the impact the constant guidelines would have on the development of students. But, over these three days, I have also begun to concede that most of the rules are extremely important, though not for the behavior they foster in and of itself.

By dictating the when and how of our students daily experience, we are providing them with practical experience that will help them follow societal rules that will be imposed on them in the future. Somewhere along the way (or perhaps every step of the way), we have to learn that rules make society function and we, individually, play an integral role in that process.

I have been trying to think back to my own elementary school experience to remember if we had as many rules as the students I’m working with manage. Truth is, I can hardly recall any such rules, but I know that we had our fair share. I am certain that these rules were explained more than once, and that I was corrected for not following them, but I cannot remember a specific time this happened. Realizing this gives me hope that perhaps we are not doing the damage I sometimes imagine; maybe, complying with a structure just becomes so ingrained in us that we forget about the numerous corrections, and focus on managing ourselves within our various systems.

Regardless of the long term effects, I think the biggest difference between my school then and now is how rules are framed. At my Montessori, we focused on how our actions affected the people and environment around us; we followed rules for the betterment of a community and our learning environment. I don’t know that I would have picked up on it as a third-grader, but the rules we have in our class right now seem more for the pleasure of the adults in the room. There are cases where I can see that the rule is to create an optimal student learning environment, but most of our guidelines serve primarily to get 17 eight-year-old students to be less frustrating for an adult to interact with.

Don’t get me wrong, I would prefer not to spend my days frustrated by the volume level in our classroom or fielding complaints over who picked who first on the playground, but I do have my concerns about the impact of our constant demand for rule following. If we are providing a student with rules for everything, right down to how they play tag with their friends on the playground, what will they do when confronted with a situation with less defined boundaries? How are we affecting their critical thinking abilities? Are we? Or are we actually modeling how to create their own rules which will allow them to begin to manage these structures on their own further along in their development? Given my experience with college students, I can say this is certainly not a universal skill, but I am eager to see any active pedagogy that might move a student in that direction.

Learning While Overwhelmed

I am a rule-follower. Sometimes a rule-questioner, but almost always a rule-follower. I actively question the validity of rules, and have a healthy disregard for arbitrary ones, but I believe in structures that make sense, like the order of operations outlined for completing a major, or earning the credentials or certification necessary for employment, prior to being employed. Overall, I find this to be a productive and somewhat efficient way to navigate life, but it means that I hardly ever find myself in a situation for which I’m not mostly prepared.

Walking into my new job on Tuesday was perhaps the most unprepared for anything I’ve ever been in my life. I didn’t realize it at the door, but by the end of the day, I was fully aware of just how little I knew about the operations and functions of an elementary school. My life experiences prepared me to learn from and adapt to the new situation, but almost everything is completely new information. To say it has been overwhelming would be an understatement – I have left work each of the last few days feeling equipped to do nothing but fall asleep immediately.

Today was a bit less of an information overload (that, or my body is adapting marvelously well), and I’ve had the energy to reflect on this process. Two things stand out to me: the importance of preparation and the reality of a threshold of learning ability in a small amount of time.

Regarding preparation – I have been in new situations before, complete with hoards of new information thrown at me in a short period of time. What makes this situation different is the amount of additional processing that has to happen in order for me to formulate any clue of what’s actually happening. When most of the faculty and staff in the room are merely absorbing information that makes sense in the context of their work, my brain is on overdrive trying to piece together every scrap of knowledge it has about what happens in a school. Sometimes it’s conscious, sometimes it’s not, but it is far more challenging than any standardized test or research paper. And then I consider this in the context of student learning, and realize that there may be students who feel this way on a daily basis. I can hope that this is not the case, knowing that educators understand this problem and use a host of tools to avoid it, but I’m sure the reality is that there are students who experience it regularly, and I will probably see some of it emerge as they begin their school year.

Secondly, I’ve concluded that there is a limit to how much information my brain can process in one day, and that processing said information, while not expending physical energy, is an extraordinary amount of work. I believe this threshold to be true for everyone, though individually defined – fully dependent on the person, their context, amount of sleep, extroversion, what they had for breakfast, and some conglomeration of other variables.

While it’s little help to me, and I’m looking forward to seeing how a more traditional school combats these issues in students, I’m glad to know that these are realities that the Montessori method deals with in stride. The crux of the Montessori philosophy, especially in regards to the youngest children, is to prepare them for whatever is next in their development. Students trace sandpaper letters to develop their arm muscles for writing; they count manipulatives to prepare them for math operations; they even button, zip, and tie on wooden frames to prepare to dress themselves. With a development sequence broken down in such detail, complete with teachers focused on presenting new challenges only when the student is ready, I imagine it’s rare that a student feels completely overwhelmed by what they are learning.

Further, and on the off chance that they do feel overwhelmed, the environment of choice they exist in within the Montessori classroom allows them to navigate that feeling appropriately. If map making is feeling overwhelming, a student can choose to focus on language, practical life skills, or any other material that has been presented to them. Moreover, this choice is a completely standardized part of the school day, fully normed and expected, not something that has any chance of making a student feel less than.

I am excited to meet the 17 children in the class I’ll be working with, and while I hope none of them find themselves feeling quite so drained from learning as I have the last few days, I’m very interested in the process, and to see if I can begin to identify when they might be feeling a bit overwhelmed.