Tuesday, January 16, 2018

What is Montessori, one may ask? How is it different than a traditional school? To start, Montessori is not only for preschool children.
It is prevalent that the  majority of Montessori schools around us are preschools and accept only  2-6 year old students; however, there are  Montessori elementary, middle, and high schools. Should you decide to transfer your child or start their education at a Montessori school, they will have many years to develop in  their  academic journey.

Separately, others ask if the transition from a Montessori school to a traditional public school will be a difficult and stressful one. The short answer is, most likely no. Montessori schools prepare their students to perform at a high standard with top notch programs in addition to teaching them to be independent, self-motivated, and responsible. Those are the best qualities for a successful student and adult.  

The following list may help you decide if the Montessori school you may be considering truly follows their core philosophy:

1. Mixed age classrooms.
What often startles parents on their first tour of a Montessori classroom is that all the students are a mixed age group. You won’t find a first grade only classroom or a fourth grade class. There is a primary classroom with three to six year olds (sometimes they separate kindergarteners in a different classroom, I’m personally not a big fan of such style, but it exists), a lower elementary classroom that includes six to nine year old students (1st-3rd graders), an upper elementary with nine to twelve year olds (4th-6th graders), middle school 13-15 year olds (7th-9th graders, sometimes only up to 8th grade) and high school for 15-18 year old students (10th-12th graders, sometimes they include 9th graders too). This approach provides several benefits. In each classroom, there are older students that practice their leadership skills by helping their younger peers. Often they even teach them lessons and introduce new materials. At the same time, you have the middle age children that are transitioning to the leadership group and have someone to look up to. The youngest students develop and mature because they see around them older role models. Below I will get back to this point and add more benefits to the mixed age classroom environment.

2. Low student teacher ratio.
Most of the Montessori private schools I have visited have significantly lower student teacher  ratios as compared  to public schools. For the last decade our population has dramatically grown and with it the size of the classrooms in public schools. Today,  an average elementary classroom in the San Francisco Bay Area consists of 30-35 students. Versus a private school (not just Montessori but most private schools) of 20-25 students. Also, there are usually two teachers in a Montessori classroom working full-time. An additional benefit is you have older students helping younger classmates, so it makes everything balanced. Many materials Montessorians use for their lessons let children work on their own, so there is no constant need of a teacher hand-holding the child. Should you decide to visit a Montessori classroom, please observe the number  of students you see working on their own, or with another student (partner), while the teachers give small group or individual lessons to other students.

3. Individual curriculum plans.
Low student teacher ratios and mixed age classrooms lead to the next difference between a Montessori and traditional school. Individual curriculum plans help any child at any level fit into the classroom and move forward at their own speed. It’s fascinating to see a first grader working on a multiplication chart while  another first grader practices one digit addition. Both of them are excited and challenged. In a traditional school the first student from my example would be bored and the second would be constantly behind. This brings up a question some parents ask me: what if my child is very slow? Will they be behind in the curriculum they need to accomplish by a certain age? The answer  no. Since there are hours of uninterrupted work time in a Montessori classroom, each student has many opportunities to complete their daily plan.  

4. No graded report cards and reward systems.
We all remember from our childhood, how stressful it was to receive grades for each turned in assignment. Sometimes, I wouldn’t sleep at night, thinking and worrying about my grade. As a mother of two, I still vividly remember those stressful periods as an elementary student. Honestly, we all wished that schools would cancel grades and find an alternative way to give  feedback towards one’s  academic progress. The main reason why most Montessori schools do not have grades is because they want to avoid unnecessary labeling, such as “A student”, “D student” etc. The teachers’ main task is to teach students to be responsible to do their best work, complete it on time, and move to the next assignment. Thus, they avoid a reward system with charts,stickers, and gifts as a means of praising children. Instead there is an encouragement and eagerness to do the right thing that usually comes from the child. Some Montessori teachers use three steps to describe a child’s progress: introduced [concept], working on, completed. They won’t mark a child’s activity completed if it is not their best work.
5. Freedom of movement.
When I was first introduced to the Montessori classroom, I was surprised and amazed to see students freely moving around their large classroom. My first thought was they probably have an indoor recess period. I was embarrassed to ask and found the answer later. Those of us that have children probably noticed that they learn even when they don’t formally sit behind a desk. Also, there is natural desire for young students to often change positions. That is why most first and second graders struggle to sit still at school. Their body is not ready for such stress and simply can’t be in a sitting position for too long. In a Montessori classroom, all the materials are everywhere in the room and can be found on different shelves. Such a layout makes students move around a lot. Every time a child switches from one activity to another, they are supposed to get up and put their materials away, and only then pick up something new.  This helps children be independent, be mobile when they need to walk and sit down when they need to. They do not ask the teacher permission to pick up a dictionary from the shelf, or to work on a math problem instead of a language arts assignment. The main goal is to complete all the tasks by the end of the day/week/month. The child decides in which order they will work on them. Of course, the teacher always observes the students and assists in many areas, but there are many activities the child does independently. Most group lessons are given on the floor at circle time, where children can change their position when they need to.

6. No homework.
The main reason Montessori schools do not have homework is because there are no Montessori materials at home. The older students might have research assignments or projects to work on but this is different from traditional schooling with unending paperwork and homework assignments. I worked with a few students in the past that asked me for additional activities to practice and take home. In that case I followed their desire to do more, and assigned some take home activities. It was optional for them to complete. Most elementary Montessori schools provide hours of independent work for each student. This gives them an opportunity to accomplish everything they have planned at school.
7. Hands-on learning materials.
Each Montessori classroom has about 15-20 shelves with a variety of hands-on learning materials. Most of them were originally designed by Maria Montessori. They are divided by subjects and have everything your child needs to practice their skills. This is one of the top reasons I recommend the Montessori approach to parents. Maria Montessori strongly believed that each new concept should be introduced through the hands. She said, “What the hand does, the mind remembers”. There is nothing more fun in school then to have an opportunity to touch different types of triangles, play with them, make discoveries about the number of their sides, put two of them together and create a new shape, be it a square, rectangle, or something else. Those hands that have such  rich experiences will never forget what a triangle is, versus the traditional approach providing a meaningless definition your child is required to memorize.   Some parents are concerned that their child will always need those Montessori materials to rely on, but the truth is as soon as they understand the concept, they move to the abstract step and transition to the next level. Basically, hands-on materials are there for the students for a short period of time to get introduced to a new concept and practice it. All Montessori materials are beautifully made from high quality wood, they look appealing and inviting to students. This makes children excited to be in such a learning environment.

8. Rich and advanced curriculum.
The last but not least point is the advanced curriculum. The majority of graduates from Montessori schools I know are truly prepared for their future academic journey. They have great social and time management skills. Their academic level is way ahead their peers from traditional schools. This happens not because the students themselves are gifted or smarter than others. It’s because they didn’t waste their time doing repetitive work for months on the concepts they mastered in weeks. They didn’t spend one third of each school year preparing for standardized testing. They were introduced to geography at the age of three in a primary classroom. When they were ready and curious about new algebraic expressions in a second grade, they were not told to wait until middle school algebra to be introduced to them. These are real examples I have witnessed myself which have left an impression on how education ought to be.

There are many other positive examples to share. The main point is if you are not satisfied with your child’s progress at their current school, just keep in mind there are other options out there. If your local Montessori school is too pricey, you can provide hands-on materials to your child at home, and help them during their homework. Many Montessori math and language arts activities one can find online. I am more than happy to share my materials, assist and support you (mymontessorifamily@gmail.com).

I have seen many excited and eager children running to class greeted by happy and engaging teachers. They are out there and if school is a bore for your child, it doesn’t have to be!

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