Looking for a school for your child is like house-hunting: when you find the right one, you know it immediately–even from a description and some photos. If you’re like me, you still do your due-diligence and research every option to death, but you know it’s just an exercise. I knew it with Sam’s Montessori school, I knew it for Sam’s current school (home!), and now I know it for a Montessori toddler program for my babies.
We’re not even sure we’ll send Leo and Zoe to school next year – we might do another year of an au pair or a nanny – but if we wanted options, I had to start doing research now. Sam’s school does not currently have a toddler program. They keep saying that they might have one by this fall, but at this point I can’t count on it. I still plan to send them there for Primary, unless this place impresses me more than I can even imagine right now.
I suppose I should wait until I at least visit this place in person, but damn, I just know. It’s the closest, cheapest, and the most beautiful (at least, based on the photos). It has an outdoor prepared environment in addition to the classroom, which is extremely appealing to me. I mean, this outdoor space is gorgeous and huge. It even has an AMI-trained guide for the toddlers, even though it is an AMS school. When I called, the director emphasized an uninterrupted work cycle, even for the toddlers! (2 hours instead of 3.) That doesn’t really matter to me as much as it would in Primary, but the fact that the director emphasized this is a good sign. (Sam’s school was the only one that insisted on the 3-hour uninterrupted work cycle – it is one of the first elements to be trashed in many Montessori schools, probably because parents demand “enrichment” activities.) There are still a million questions to answer (like, how the hell could we possibly afford this!), but I’m so excited.
I have been looking forward to this day for over six years – yes, since before Sam was born. I spent the early part of those years reading books and listening to lectures about homeschooling and educational theory. Somewhere in the middle of those years, I began to think about how I would implement those theories. I went to homeschooling conferences and scoured the internet for curricula. Two summers ago, I tried to do some Montessori work at home with Sam, and my utter failure taught me many important lessons about what I would need to do when we began in earnest. About a year ago, I started compiling my notes into subjects for first grade, knowing approximately what level Sam would be at based upon her progress at Montessori. And in the past six weeks, I made my final decisions on curricula, purchased all the materials I would need, set up the homeschool room, and armed myself with a few weeks’ worth of lessons.
I have loved every minute of all of this preparation, but I’ve always worried about whether I would love the actual teaching. I know it’s way to early to judge, but I still can’t help but feel great because our first day was a joy for both of us. Sam first spent an hour on addition, she played a few songs on the bells, did a half a lesson of Handwriting Without Tears (there were almost some tears during that one), read an entire Early Reader book out loud to me and wrote down the title and author in her notebook, worked with the metal insets, reviewed the phonograph families for about two minutes, did some multiplication, and then listened as I read the first two chapters of The Secret Garden.
I spent more of my time working directly with her than I will in the future because everything is new, but she was able to do quite a bit on her own. In fact, I actually wrote most of this post during school. I also did some laundry, filled the dog’s water bowl, let in the maids and wrote them a check, reconciled my credit card transactions, and made notes about issues that came up during school. I anticipate that I will have at least an hour a day during school to prepare future lessons and do other work while Sam is busy working independently. I put so much effort into designing a curriculum that is closely and deliberately guided, but which can be worked on with very little help from me, and it is working! Of course, it helps enormously that Sam went to Montessori for three years already. The whole routine of choosing a piece of work, working on it independently, and putting it away, is second-nature to her. She was also quite accepting of the guidance that I did have to give her. I know that won’t last forever, but the fact that she didn’t balk on the first day is amazing to me. If you knew Sam, you would know what an achievement it is for both of us.
Of course, there were all sorts of little problems: I forgot to provide colored pencils for the metal insets, we ran out of toilet paper and when I ran upstairs to get some Sam followed me and got distracted, we had to break for a snack (I was hoping to avoid snack), the Handwriting Without Tears lesson did not go well, and Sam did ask to go upstairs to play a lot during the first hour or so. But we’ll work out the bugs. The important things went very well. I had Sam in a small room, working productively for three whole hours on our very first day.
After school, I took her out to lunch to celebrate our first day. At McDonald’s, she invited herself to sit at a table with two other little girls, aged six and nine. I sat nearby and eavesdropped on their conversation, which covered losing baby teeth, all the cuts and scrapes on their legs, snowboarding, the recent storm and power outage, and many other little girl topics. I couldn’t help but think about the so-called problem of socialization for homeschoolers. Bah!
This day was as good as I ever imagined it could be.
We bought our piano in November of 2009. We bought it because Sam seemed so interested in playing. We were given some great lesson books and other materials. In January of 2010 I sat down with Sam one time with the first lesson book and it’s been gathering dust ever since. It’s not that she wasn’t ready for piano; it’s that she wasn’t ready to take direction from me.
For two years, Sam has occasionally plucked at the piano by herself (doing it “my own way” in defiance of any instruction that I might offer), never learning much, but recently showing signs of being able to hunt down notes by ear. I’ve also fiddled around with the piano, and we’ve enjoyed the recorded music on it quite often. Guests have played for us. But still, it was mostly just an expensive decoration.
A couple of weeks ago, Sam told me that she wanted to learn to play Twinkle Twinkle. I think she has been playing music on the bells at school, and I had helped her pick out the notes on the piano a few times. (As long as I showed her the notes in the way that she told me to, she would cooperate.) I got the sense that she might be ready this time, so I asked her if she would like me to give her piano lessons, and she said yes!
We’ve had four or five lessons now. Sam will sit still and observe as I give her a demonstration, and she will attempt to perform the tasks as demonstrated. We’ve gone over the proper sitting position. We’ve learned the correct way to hold her hands and how her fingers should strike the keys. We’ve numbered her fingers and played “wiggle number four!” type games. We’ve played notes with specific fingers up and down the scale. We’ve tapped out quarter notes and half notes. Each lesson is short – maybe 15 minutes – and we always go back a couple of lessons in the book as a review. At the end of every lesson, we have “free time” where she gets to learn a song in her old, comfortable way – I point to the keys she should play and she hits them with her index finger.
I didn’t have any plan at all when we started, except that I would use this particular book. The short lessons, the reviews, and the “free time” all came about naturally, and I realize that I’ve internalized a lot of the pedagogical principles that I’ve been studying for the past few years as I’ve been preparing for homeschooling. That is gratifying. A little bit more deliberate was my use of Montessori language; I told Sam that first I would give a “presentation” and then it would be her turn, just like at school. I’ve tried this in the past with her to no avail. But now it is working and we’re having fun! I am teaching Sam something in a formal way and we are having a good time!
I don’t know if this is a normal parenting experience or not, but this is a huge breakthrough for Sam and me. Since she was about two-and-a-half, Sam has generally shown no respect for any teaching I might offer. The quotation marks around “my own way” in the second paragraph were not scare quotes. I was quoting her literal response to just about every challenging thing I’ve attempted to show her or teach her for the past couple of years. The fact that I would show her a method automatically made it wrong to her, and she would insist on doing it “my own way.” Writing letters of the alphabet, zipping up her coat, putting on her gloves, tracing sandpaper letters, putting her glass of milk on the far side of the plate, opening the car door, reciting a poem, putting together a jigsaw puzzle – anything. If I tried to teach it, she rebelled and insisted on doing it “her way.” Most often, her way didn’t work, but that didn’t seem to matter to her. At first this was very upsetting to me and I kept pushing, but eventually I backed off simply out of frustration. If she didn’t want to learn from me, I couldn’t force her. So I kept offering, but as soon as she resisted, I stopped trying and allowed her to wallow in her incompetence. And in many areas, she really is quite incompetent for her age.
The change is not just with the piano. She is showing me the same respect in other areas now as well. A few days ago, she allowed me to teach her how to put a towel on a towel bar. Seriously, she is five years old and she had never learned this simple task. They use hooks at school and we have hooks for her coats, but every time she used a towel in the bathroom, it ended up on the floor. I’d watched her try to do it on her own and she just could not figure out how to even up the sides and use gravity, but there was no way she would allow me to show her. This time, she observed and then proudly did it on her own. And she keeps doing it – at least when she remembers that she knows how.
Sam has had the same rebellious attitude towards her dad, but quite so strong. At school she has always taken direction – no problem. And I’ve seen her accept instruction from adult friends of ours and from her peers. So I’ve always known this was part of her natural and necessary separation process from her parents. I just didn’t know if it would ever change, and that has been a huge worry for me as a future homeschooler. No matter how Montessori-ish you make a homeschool environment, the student still needs to respect the teacher.
And Sam’s personality has not changed. I’m still going to need to be the most unobtrusive type of teacher for her. Any whiff of an attempt to control her will cause her to rebel. Finding ways to activate her internal motivation will be my biggest challenge, I know. But the fact that she now recognizes that I know things and that I can help her without controlling her is huge. My task now is not to screw it up. I need to continue to give her examples of ways in which I can help her learn faster than she would do on her own, but I need to abstain from pushing. If I can do that, I think we might actually have a chance at success with homeschooling.
I’ve almost got our photos organized and will have tons of pictures of the twins to share soon. But I just ran across this photo of Sam at her Montessori school from last spring and had to share it immediately. Look how grown up she is!
School is out for the summer! And, contrary to the famous commercial, I think now is the most wonderful time of the year. I thought summer last year would be tough – no more free babysitting in the form of school. (Well, not free, but included in the price of admission.) But I found out that, with a couple of camps and a couple of trips to break things up, spending full days with my daughter was a pleasure that I had missed during the school year. I hope and expect that this summer will be the same.
Sammy received her end of year “report card,” such as it is from a Montessori program. Actually, they call it a “progress report.” There are a couple dozen categories in which the child is rated from 1-5 (“works with moveable alphabet,” “enjoys listening to music,” “demonstrates grace and courtesy,” etc.), but it’s really the teacher’s narrative that is meaningful. Last year, the theme of the report was that Sammy needed to be more independent. I was so concerned! This is why we were sending her to Montessori! She was independent at home. Why wasn’t she choosing work on her own and being so timid at school? Why were we paying all this money for her to sit around and peel carrots?
Well, I was wrong and I was right. Developing her independences is the primary reason we sent her to Montessori, but the fact that she wasn’t showing independence wasn’t the fault of her school or her character – it was no cause for alarm. It was just what she had to go through to get where she needed to be, and thank god she is in Montessori, because this year, she got there! And she did it on her own, the Montessori way, because she was ready, not because someone pushed her.
This year, Sammy flourished. She blossomed. She went from reticent, shy, clingy school-Sammy, to choosing her own friends, choosing her own work, working hard every day, acting with confidence, and really concentrating on her work. I couldn’t be more pleased. Of course, she has made excellent progress in the “academic” side of school as well. She is reading real books now – her language development is far ahead of the curve. She is also on-track with numbers and math, which she was completely uninterested in last year. She works with all the other materials in the classroom as well, from geography puzzles to the musical bells. But to me, those things are consequences. The important thing is that Sam is learning about the rewards of work and effort, about independence, and about values.
This year, her teacher mentions that Sammy still sometimes needs direction in choosing more challenging activities, and her underdeveloped fine-motor skills are still holding her back. (Isn’t it wonderful that in Montessori, a need for direction in choosing more challenging activities is not seen as normal, but something to be improved upon? The child is expected to learn to choose challenging activities for his own, selfish purposes.) I must have blossomed right along with Sam because now, I’m not worried. Instead of flipping out about how Sam must be lazy or fears failure, I just see this as part of the road that she needs to travel. Some kids struggle in other ways. Sammy struggles with self-confidence. There is no better place for her to learn it firsthand than in a Montessori classroom. I can’t wait to see how she develops next year! And maybe I’ll learn something again, too.
Sam didn’t do too much “school” work in the past week, but it’s a wonderful option to have when we are not busy with other fun activities. I think it is still working out well that she just chooses her Montessori work when she wants to. She might go from playing with her dolls to working seriously on polishing, to torturing the cat.
In the past week, Sam did more polishing and cutting, and did the metal insets one time. (I’m shocked that she isn’t working with those more often.) We added a few new activities. Since she can’t use the hole punch yet, I punched a row of holes in a small piece of paper and showed her how to hold it on top of another piece of paper and fill in the holes with a felt-tip marker to make rows of holes. She liked that, but only for about 5 minutes.
I also made my own version of the spindle box. I wanted to do the number rods first, but I hadn’t figured out how to make them. Luckily, Sam seems to be doing well with the spindle box, which in my case, is an egg carton and macaroni:
You just dump out all the macaroni and then put the right number of pieces back in each cup. The first time Sam tried it she was all over the map, but today she got them all right except for 8 and 9. It’s fun to watch her progress.
We also did some non-Montessori games that were fun and educational. I had brought home some dice for her from Las Vegas, so we played “highest wins.” We each rolled one die and then figured out who had the higher number. Sam liked that a lot except that we had some bad luck and I won much too often for her taste. (She is just beginning to want to win games.)
Then we played with a game called First Words Puzzle Set which is just a huge set of cardboard cards, each with a picture and a word, and each of which is split into two puzzles pieces. If we only use about 5 cards, Sam can put the puzzle pieces together and she can read some of the words. She likes to do that kind of game with me but occasionally she will play it by herself. This video is from a few weeks ago, but it shows her playing Zingo by herself, and how pleased she is when she “wins:”
I can now say that I am officially a homeschooler! Well, sort of. Sam will still go to Montessori preschool, but we got started with “summer school at home” this week and we’re having a blast!
I had intended to start out in a formal, Montessori way: a dedicated time for school, starting with circle time; a separate space for the Montessori materials, away from toys and other distractions; and me 100% prepared to give proper demonstrations for everything.
I didn’t have time to do any work on this project at OCON as I had intended. We got home and I was totally swamped but I knew that if I didn’t get started right away, the whole summer might pass us by. I wanted to jump right in, but I only had a few things set up, and some were only half-ready, and I didn’t know the proper way to do anything much at all. I guess “prepared environment” really means a lot of prep work, huh?
I did have a few things ready, so I decided to just allow Sam to work on them during the normal course of the day. This destroys any ambition of having her concentrate for long periods of time or being totally free to choose any work that she is interested in. I’d like to move towards that goal, but for now, at least she spends some time doing structured activities independently.
Here is what our little homeschool looks like:
I don’t have enough open shelving, so the drawers have to suffice. Some of them contain Montessori work and some contain other toys. Not ideal. The colored bins on the right hold regular toys and you can see a doll-house on the floor right next to the table.
I had to put the metal insets in a different room because they took up so much space:
We have two mostly unused bedrooms in this house, either of which could serve as a dedicated school room and solve these problems, but they are being used for storage now, so it would be an enormous effort to clean them out. Also, they are not on the main level of the house where my computer is, and where the kitchen is. I have a feeling that Sam would not take well to working in an isolated room like that, and I would have nothing to do. I do plan to use one of those bedrooms for homeschooling when it’s a full-time thing, at which time I’ll move my office into the same room.
For our work, we started with polishing pennies, the metal insets, and cutting along a line. For the pennies, I set up all the needed items on a tray:
I demonstrated how to place one penny on a napkin (which she has to get from her kitchen cabinet), to take a Q-Tip, dip it in the lemon juice and roll it on the side of the glass to avoid drips, and to rub the penny. We had a few shiny, clean pennies, so I showed her what the penny should look like. When she is satisfied (and I leave this up to her), she puts the shiny pennies in the other cup. (For all of you die-hards out there, yes I do put the dirty pennies on the left and the clean ones on the right – always left-to-right! This was how the tray looked after she finished.) As soon as I can remember to buy actual lemons at the store, we’ll add squeezing the lemons as part of the process. For now, I refill the little cup with bottled lemon juice every night.
I set up the metal insets for her and reviewed for myself how they are to be used. So I’m prepared to demonstrate, but she hasn’t used them yet. As part of the set-up, I had to cut a lot of paper into squares the same size as the metal insets, and I ended up with a lot of small pieces of paper. I decided to use it for “cutting along the line.” This is exactly what it sounds like: the child uses scissors to cut along a line drawn on paper. I created a series of paper with lines and Sam spent about an hour working on this on Friday, so I suspect I’m going to have to make a new set of paper with lines every night for a while. Here is a video of what I made for this exercise:
After I took the video I decided to eliminate the papers with more than one line. I didn’t do that in the first go-around and now I’m thinking it was a bad idea. Another part of this exercise that Sammy really likes is that when she cuts the squiggles, she ends up with two pieces of paper that look a bit like jigsaw puzzle pieces. She enjoys putting them back together again. The paper and a pair of scissors are on a tray just like the one for the pennies, and she can bring it to her table to work on any time she chooses.
I also tried to teach her how to use a hole-punch to make rows of holes, but she didn’t have the hand strength to use it. I have another, similar exercise dealing with rows that I’ll set up this week, though. I’m really glad that I wrote up my earlier blog post detailing all of the activities I wanted to do – I’ve been referring to it often.
So far, this is going really well! It’s low-pressure and we both are having fun. If it continues to work well, I might not ever make it more formal. Thank god she has her real Montessori school nine months out of the year. I think it would be really, really hard, if not impossible (without other children) to create the same kind of environment at home. But I must say, this is an auspicious beginning for both of us!
A few days ago I was lying in bed, stressing out about how I’m ever going to manage homeschooling. It’s still quite a few years off and I’m doing all I can to prepare, but I still sometimes get overwhelmed with the whole idea.
The thing that I was mulling over this time was how I’m going to manage the transition from school to home learning. Sam is going to be in Montessori for at least three years, and I’m considering keeping her there for first and second grade, too. Especially if she stays in school through second grade, I worry about that transition. Knowing what I know about her personality, I don’t think she will simply accept the idea of school at home, especially with mom as the teacher. I started thinking about ways that I could ease that transition.
And suddenly it hit me – I can homeschool her each summer! I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me before, but it really addresses four issues: it will help get Sam used to school at home, it will give me practice at this teaching thing without much pressure, it will keep the continuity of her education going year-round, and it will fill up some of that scary empty space during the summer that I’ve been dreading. (I plan to homeschool year-round, too.)
So for the past week or so I’ve been planning. I’m going to stick with the Montessori method and materials for the most part because it is what both Sam and I know and because, obviously, I think it is the best kind of pre-school education. Along with advice from a few friends, I’m working almost exclusively from Elizabeth Hainstock’s Teaching Montessori in the Home: The Pre-school Years. I also plan to use some activities from June R. Oberlander’s Slow and Steady, Get Me Ready. (Both are indispensible books for educational activities from 0-5 years old.) Please don’t hesitate to give me any suggestions or pointers in the comments, if you have experience.
I’m going to try a two hour work cycle, three days a week to start, but we’ll back off of that if it is too much in the beginning. If it goes well, we might increase the amount of school, but this is supposed to be fun and low-pressure. However, school time is going to be clearly defined; we will start right after breakfast, we will be dressed, and we will have a dedicated school area in the house. I have plans for a special (kid-sized) table and chairs, a few bookshelves for the materials which will be closed off during the rest of the day, and a rug for working on the floor. We’ll start with circle time (15 minutes?), which I hope will put us both in the right mind-set. Some activities I’m considering for circle time are:
Reading (will try non-fiction, descriptive library books instead of her usual fiction)
Walking with a bell without ringing it (one of my most distinct memories from my own Montessori education)
Then we’ll spend the balance of the time on independent work. When Sam doesn’t need me, I plan to read a book on the sofa nearby and watch her out of the corner of my eye. Here is the menu of activities that I’ve come up with so far, with links to descriptions of the work in many cases. (The page numbers are all from Hainstock, except for SAS which refers to the Oberlander book – they are descriptions of how to demonstrate the task to the child.)
Cutting paper along a line (pre-prepared paper with various types of lines)
The hole punch row (SAS, pg 192)
Polishing pennies with lemon juice. Include squeezing the lemons into the water. (Come up with my own demonstration by practicing myself first)
We may not need all of these, or we may need a lot more for the summer, but this is what I’ll start with. Most of these activities are things that I know she is already doing in school, but which will probably still challenge and interest her.
I’m not much of a make-it-yourself kind of person, so I had to buy some of the materials. I bought the metal insets, the sandpaper letters, a puzzle, and the dressing frames. Everything else uses materials that I already have or can be fashioned from other, common household objects. (I’ll make my own spindle box and spindles from an egg carton and marbles or pasta or something, but that’s about the extent of my craftiness.)
In doing this research, I came across this lovely video that explains the idea behind the “practical life” exercises in a Montessori school. (Oh my god, what a beautiful environment in this school!) It also includes a detailed demonstration of the bow tying dressing board, which I think shows how Montessori is fundamentally different from so many other pre-schools. From what I gather, many pre-schools teach practical skills. But in Montessori, each skill is isolated and then placed into a specific order, each movement is precise, time is allowed for as much practice as the child needs, and, of course, the child can work independently after a few demonstrations. Montessori is not all about “freedom” and self-expression. I believe the Montessori Method does foster independence and creative thinking, but only by means of teaching a child how to master himself and his environment. And there are specific, objective ways to accomplish this.
I haven’t written much about Sammy’s progress with reading because she hasn’t been making much progress. She learned her letters and letter sounds very early but then she plateaued.
She seemed to be stuck on the isolation of the sounds in words. She was able to identify the first letter of any particular word back in the fall, but moving on to the last sound or the middle sound has been a challenge. She’d occasionally spell a word, but it was never consistent. One word she has spelled quite a few times is “red.” I was never sure why.
I actually haven’t been working on it much with her; she has been doing a lot of work with letters and sounds at school to keep up what she already knows, and if she wasn’t ready to move on, I wasn’t going to push it. Her brain probably just couldn’t isolate those sound yet, or maybe she was just adjusting to the way they teach her in school. Her progress stopped right around that same time. None of this ever concerned me – it’s just something I noted.
She’s recently started making progress again. She has started telling me the first letters of words more often and without prompting, so I know her interest is high again. (No matter how many times I correct her, she likes to tell me B STARTS WITH BALL and C STARTS WITH CAT.) When we play our games (from Montessori Read and Write: A Parent’s Guide to Literacy for Children
by Lynn Lawrence), she now seems to be able to identify more of the sounds. She might get them in the wrong order, and she still needs a lot of help, but I can see that she is able to recognize that there are multiple sounds in words. She has also become very excited to learn that double-e says “eeeee” as in pee, and double-o says “ooooo” as in poo.
Sidewalk chalk has always been a great way for us to sound out words. I’ll pick a word and she’ll tell me what letters to write. Yesterday, she spelled “grass” (G-R-A-S) and “green” (spelled correctly) and “shoe” (S-H-O-O). I picked the words with the double e’s and o’s on purpose since she likes them so much.
I felt so good about this phonetic approach when I found today, in Sammy’s school folder, her moveable alphabet book (the teacher writes out the words that the child spells with wood cut-out letters) containing:
It’s pretty funny because the colors were some of her first spoken words, and now they are becoming some of her first read/written words. I swear, this kid already has a hierarchy of values and she acts on it!
I spent about an hour in Sammy’s Montessori classroom this morning. It was great to see her in action in her new environment, but it was hard to tell if she was acting differently because I was there. I was hoping that she would go off on her own and do some work without me, but she wanted to show me everything. She showed me how to do the brown stairs (teaches height and width), the red rods (teaches length), and the moveable alphabet (pre-reading). We also had a snack together, which was prepared by Sammy and an older classmate.
As always happens when visiting a Montessori classroom, I was struck most by the way the children interacted with each other. The atmosphere in that classroom was one of benevolence and cooperation, which is exactly the opposite of what we are all taught to expect from children. Children are supposed to be little “selfish” heathens who need to be tamed. They are expected to treat others badly until we pound it into them that they must share and be polite. The children in Sammy’s class were not perfect. There were times when others encroached on Sammy’s work, or something was grabbed at, but these were the exceptions. The teacher had to step in once that I noticed, to remind the children not to touch another’s work. (“Work” is what the Montessori materials are called.)
I also noticed that most of the children were smiling and friendly to each other, and to me. One boy asked if I remembered his name, since we had met before. He beamed when I did, indeed. (The children addressed each other by name quite often.) Other children told me how Sammy needed help carrying the biggest blocks, or how they liked to have a snack with her. Since I did not know how to help Sammy do her work in the proper way, I was instructed by the children not to sit on the rug, but next to it, and that the rods needed to be aligned vertically on the rug, not horizontally. These instructions were not the bossy behavior you sometimes see with children (including my own) but sincere help and assistance. I love the Montessori combination of great freedom for the children, but with instruction and expectations for the proper way to use things. It is not the freedom of subjectivism, but the freedom of trust and respect.
Sammy and I arrived early so I saw how the children filtered in. The teachers greeted the newcomers, but there was no need for them to get up to tell the children what to do. The kids just hung up their coats and went right to work. Some worked independently; others worked in groups. The teachers gave lessons or read books to small groups that formed organically. I didn’t stay for “circle time” which is when the whole class does some kind of activity together. I might want to go again in the later part of the morning to observe that.
One final thing I noted was how big and clumsy I felt in that classroom, with all of its child-sized things. It made me realize concretely how uncomfortable and frustrated children must feel with all of the adult-sized things that surround them. I don’t believe in turning one’s home into a full Montessori environment, but it must be such a wonderful relief for the kids to enter that world designed for them each day.
Sammy just taught me how to make a neat pile of cards. She has some small, square pieces of cardboard that are part of a board game. She collected seven of them and spread them out. Then she placed each one in a neat stack. She picked up the whole stack and tapped the edge on the table to line up the cards. She rubbed her finger over the top edge of the stack to make sure the cards were aligned. Then she said,
Here are some new things that Samantha is doing, which I can only attribute to her 2 weeks in Montessori.
Sammy has started to write her letters. She mostly draws individual squiggles which look like “c’s” and “u’s” and she’ll “read” them: A, EF, GEE, EM, ESS, DEE. THAT SPELLS JINX! But she has written and identified a recognizable “u,” “w,” “t” and a “j.”
She tried to do a headstand last night.
Looking at a blob of soap on her hand, she said, LOOK, MOMMY! AN OVAL! And she was right.
She rolls up or folds every towel and washcloth in sight.
When she is putting away her toys, she doesn’t want any help, and she doesn’t even want any words to help her: NO, MOMMY, DON’T TALK. I’LL DO IT MYSELF.
And my favorite:
MOMMY, I’M GOING TO PUT THE STRING ON THE PAPER AND USE THE CRAYON UNDER IT. DON’T TOUCH, OK, MOMMY? I’M GOING TO DO SOME WORK.
When Sammy attended day care, she’d sometimes come home with a new “skill” such as reciting the days of the week or naming the seasons. After attending Montessori for 2 weeks, she has already come home with new skills such as shaking her hands over the sink after washing them to get most of the water off, folding, and going to the potty without stripping completely naked. Practical life, indeed!
Rational Jenn wrote today about one way children learn to evade: their parents implicitly teach it to them by Parenting by Authority. To Parent by Authority is to expect obedience from your children. “Because I said so,” is the leitmotif of this parenting style. Sure, we may all do this on occasion. Each time we do it, it is a mistake, but the real harm comes when a child is implicitly told over and over again that what he perceives, thinks, feels, and judges, is irrelevant – that what matters is what the authority figure demands.
I’ve been thinking about the same issue, but in regard to education. Since Sammy started Montessori, I’ve been reacquainting myself with all the good reasons I had for choosing this type of school for her. One of those reasons is that Montessori is the only widely available educational system that does not Educate by Authority.
Everything about standard schools is geared towards obedience. Teachers decide what the students will learn, when and by what method. Grades are the major form of feedback, but they do not measure everything the student has learned, only what the teacher has decided is important. There is no freedom for the student to pursue a special interest deeply. Busywork replaces the quest for real understanding. One of the worst features of standard school is the system of grading on a curve, which pits students against each other in unhealthy competition, where one gains at the expense of another, and actual achievement in relation to reality is irrelevant.
Everything about Montessori is geared toward independence. Students interact primarily with their environment, not with the teacher. The students enter a prepared environment of materials that are appropriate for their age. They are free to choose whatever “work” interests them at the moment, focusing on it for as long as it interests them. The teachers are guides, serving only to demonstrate the use of the materials when necessary, or to gently point a floundering child in the direction of purposeful activity. For preschoolers, almost all work is hands-on. At this age, the students do not have the capacity to connect abstract lecture to concrete reality, at least not when learning something brand new. They need to learn with the hand as well as with the mind.
The Montessori method recognizes that external reward systems such as grades are not necessary, and even harmful. Children naturally want to learn. Anyone who has observed small children can see this. The reward for good work is in the work itself, and in the accomplishment. Montessori materials are self-correcting – the children know whether they have done the work correctly without relying on a teacher’s stamp of approval. The blocks of diminishing size must be stacked up from biggest to smallest or the tower will not stand. The cylinders of diminishing size must be placed in the proper holes, or they will not all fit in the puzzle.
Discipline in a Montessori school is almost a non-issue. There is no need for children to sit quietly and listen to a teacher. They are free to roam about the classroom and to interact with each other as they see fit. Because the work holds their interest, they are generally focused on a task, and not seeking attention or looking for an outlet for their energies. The rules that are in place are natural, for the purpose of working in a group setting: children must never interrupt others’ work, must put their materials away when finished, and generally follow the rules of social decorum that adults do. But within those limits, they have a great deal of freedom.
One important freedom Montessori children have is the freedom to make mistakes. Instead of a big red “X” on their paper, children who make mistakes get feedback from reality: from the materials they are using. If a child tries to stack the blocks and fails, he is not judged by any other person. The tower just falls. That is enough. His own, internal motivation is what will drive him to try again, and his primary guide is his own mind. He must make the connection that the smaller blocks go on top before he can build the tower. He may observe the other students and possibly the teacher building the tower, but nobody is telling him what to do. He is free to try again immediately or to wait. There is no external pressure motivating him.
This trust in children’s innate (or, I would prefer to say, natural) desire to learn, to achieve, and to grow – in short, to be good – is analogous to the Positive Discipline principle of Assuming Positive Intent. You should assume, barring any evidence to the contrary, that your child is trying to solve a problem but just doesn’t have the skills yet, or has forgotten how. For example, if your toddler is banging his fork on the table, he’s probably not trying to irritate you. He might be hungry and not know how else to tell you, or he might be exploring the sound or the feel of the vibration of the fork. Your job is not to discipline him, but to try to read his signals with the assumption of positive intent, and to guide him towards the actions that will accomplish what he wants. A teacher’s job should not be to force learning upon the child. The child already wants to learn. What he needs is freedom within limits, and guidance.
Why are Parenting by Authority and Educating by Authority so prevalent? What in the world makes anybody think that children need to be disciplined and forced to learn? There is so much evidence against this, that I can only guess that a deeply rooted premise is at work, and I suspect that it is the idea of Original Sin. I’d like to explore this idea more. I think it has enormous implications for parenting and education. I know that I have unconsciously accepted this premise. I fight it consciously, but it will take a lot more work to fully root it out. But I already see myself thinking about ways I might homeschool differently that I envision it now. Instead of telling Sammy what subject we will study for a semester, I may purchase all the materials I think are appropriate and set them up in a way that she can begin to explore them on her own, and see where it leads. I might break up the day into two, 3-hour study blocks, as they do in Montessori. I might let Sammy go a whole week studying only one subject, or I might require only that math be studied every day. I’m not sure yet. But I see two principles that can guide me: Let Reality be the Judge, and Trust Internal Motivation.