Why I Chose Montessori

Life really is left up to a lot of chance. I wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about Montessori at that point, but I’ve known a few people in my life who recommended it. My mom told me that she wished she could have sent me to a Montessori school growing up. Knowing that it was a great alternative to traditional education but not really knowing what was so great about it led me to apply for a position as an afternoon assistant. The school was located over an hour away across a huge city, but I was seeking something different in life. I had worked with children a lot in my life, mostly babysitting and various volunteer experience so I knew I could at least swing the child-care part. Luckily I nailed the interview and was hired to work at AMS.

Working in the after-care program I had not yet had the opportunity to experience the Montessori classroom. I could see all the works on the shelves, but had never seen them used. Trying to get money to gain my independence from my then-current home life I started picking up extra shifts whenever someone was out sick. I got to see the Montessori classroom in action during a morning period and I LOVED IT. In fact I can recall my first Montessori-Whoa was watching a 4 year old girl put together the Red Rod Maze. She got each piece one at a time and placed them meticulously on her mat. After placing them and admiring her work for a second she quietly walked across the room and grabbed the teacher’s bell. Arriving back at her mat she removed her shoes and walked slowly through the maze with the bell never ringing once. I saw no teacher interfering with her actions, or guiding her in anyway. In fact at that point I saw no teacher anywhere around, just children quietly conversing and working independently. I expressed to the Lead Teacher later what I had observed the girl doing, and she nodded and explained that the materials could be used many ways so long as they were respected.

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Shortly after my arrival at the school was Parent Education Night. I was encouraged to come and learn more about Montessori and why we do what we do. The topic of the evening was Language. I had seen children working with the letters on the floor spelling words and sometimes sentences. I thought that was the extent of Montessori Language curriculum. Oh boy, how wrong was I? I remember being distinctly confused when to demonstrate writing ability the Lead Teacher grabbed a cylinder block from the Sensorial Shelf. She then showed how the three-finger grasp guides a child’s muscle memory to hold a pencil. I was completely blown-away. Children worked with that work every day, and clearly enjoyed doing it. They were gaining multiple levels of education and satisfying a natural curiosity to explore the objects around them. Here is when I was completely sold on Montessori Education.

Shortly after that Parent Education night I expressed my desire to know more to others at the school which led to enrolling in the American Montessori Society Training. I’m so thankful for supportive Lead Teachers and a supportive Director who encouraged my questions and allowed me to experience Montessori first-hand.

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A Visual Tour

Here’s a quick peek at my new classroom. It’s been a lot of adjusting and rearranging, but it’s calmed me a lot to have the room set up my way. I know where everything is now! Yay! Imagine that before all of the shelves were pushed against all the walls. The middle of the room was one big open area, and the beautiful windows were blocked off. Ever since I started at the school 5 years ago, the room has been arranged the same way.

Here is half of the Kitchen / Practical Life area
Practical Life

Main Room (Line Time area is to the left)

This part of the Main Room has visual access to the Practical Life AreaScience Corner 2

This is my favorite spot in the room: the Science Corner. I adore the garden right outside the window!Science CornerHere is our Line Time area with a view of my not-yet-organized Sensorial shelves and my fledgling peace-table.
Line Time Area

It’s been a very very busy few weeks, and I feel today that it paid off. This morning was so beautiful during work time. One girl cut and arranged flowers from our garden into little vases to place around the room, another child was walking peacefully through a Red Rod maze while holding a bell, and two boys sat in the science corner discussing the bugs they’d seen outside. I’m so very lucky and happy!

The Little Things

I was recently observed by my Field Supervising teacher as a requirement for my Montessori training class. As nerve-wracking as my first Observation was, I learned A TON from it. I’ve focused for a long time on the major things I’ve been changing in order to be a great teacher, but this visit gave me the opportunity to examine the small things.

  • Positioning when talking to a child

I’m sure many people have heard that kneeling to talk to a child is better than leaning over to talk to them. It’s about respecting the child by giving them the opportunity to look you in the eye. You’re showing them that what they say matters to you by being on their level. I try to do this often, but I do notice I don’t do it if the child is seated.

  • Eye Contact

This goes along with your positioning when you’re responding to the child. I try to always look people in the eyes when they are speaking to me, and I notice this is something that seems to be less prevalent as I meet people in life. It’s sometimes quite hard for me to focus on what someone is saying unless I’m looking directly at them. As a part of Grace and Courtesy in the classroom I try to always turn to the child and look at them while answering their question. I’ve noticed that if I am not looking at the child and answer their question without making eye contact, they don’t seem to realize I’m speaking to them. Perhaps children actually NEED to have eye contact to successfully communicate?

  • Tone of Voice

There are those times when you know you’re at the point where you need a few moments alone, but that won’t always happen. It’s hard to remain cool and composed at this level. When I feel myself getting upset, I try to step back for a moment and think “How would I want someone to talk to me right now?” It’s hard sometimes. However I have noticed I’m getting better at not carrying my attitude towards a different child. Little steps!

  • Independence

I am finally starting to see the product of an independent child. I’ve been in the same classroom now for going on 3 years, so I’ve seen the full cycle of several children coming into our classroom and leaving at 6 years old. What a wondrous and beautiful change it is! From the 3 year old who needed lessons on everything in their reach to the 6 year old working independently for hours at a time making fully colored and labeled World Map. Every little step of independence we give these children leads to a magnificently self-confident child. It’s very tempting sometimes to constantly assist the youngest children in the class because they’re making a large mess, or not doing something in the most efficient manner. However if we don’t interfere and instead let the child see things on their own, they blossom into self-aware and self-confident children.

Of course knowing that you’re being watched causes you to focus on your every move. “Did I use my left hand instead of my right hand? ” I found myself turning to see if she was watching me sometimes to find that of course, she was. I want to do as great as I am capable! No more silly mistakes! “Oh man I should have knelt down with that child. ” Being a teacher is a work in progress – what a ride!

Picture time!

Pumpkin Counting
Tracing Sandpaper Letters
Soap Whisking
Water Pouring
Brown Stairs and Pink Tower Extension
Binomial Cube
Banking Game - Hundreds and Units
Removing Grass from the Garden

Have a Happy Halloween!

I fell off the face of the Earth…

..and came back to post!

Ahh, the new school year! Many children moved on, many new ones moved into the class. New names to learn, nametags to make, lessons to give. We’ve been very busy, leading to me coming home and basically turning into a vegetable on the couch, staring into space. (As I keep doing right now, it’s very hard to concentrate lately!)

It’s an emotion-heavy time of year for any teacher. We’re sad to see the children we’ve worked with for so long move on in their educational career, but also very happy for the child as well. Initial anxiety of getting new children in the class is replaced with happiness of the new little lives we get to help grow. The addition of new children to the classroom is often a somewhat rough transition. I know that if you have a classroom that is not year-round, you can give all of the introductory lessons in the first few weeks of class. At our school the new children aren’t all introduced at the same time. They move to our classroom when there is a spot available, and not all of our older children left on the same date. So lessons and introductions to the classroom are somewhat sporadic, but we’re managing – as you can see below!

Exploring Geometric Solids while blindfolded

The blindfolds in our classroom have gotten more use lately than they ever have, as children have been experimenting with what works can be accomplished blindfolded. I had one girl ask me one day if she could attempt to put the Binomial Cube together while blindfolded, and she put it back together perfectly. I regretfully did not get any pictures, but the classroom fell perfectly silent as everyone watched her feel each piece and reassemble the cube. It was absolutely beautiful.

A student giving a lesson on Teen Boards
Teen Boards and Teen Beads
Writing a story
More of the same story

The child who is writing that story comes to me for help spelling larger words, but prefers to work alone and sound out each word. They may not be spelled correctly, but you can read what she’s writing! We correct her writing if she asks, and offer helpful tips when she’s stuck, but the rest is all her.

Cards and Counters
Parts of the Flower
Matching Geometric Solids to Objects

I’m sure that some of my posts in the near future will be taking a language turn- as that is the next class I am taking this semester in my AMS training. I’m very excited! I am also working on my internship too, which requires me to do many original lessons and do some student teaching in the morning class. I can’t believe how quickly one year of training went by, only one more to go!

Practical Life and Sensorial overview

One unique aspect of the Montessori classroom is the inclusion of several subjects that are not typically found in any other classrooms. Of course there are the standard Math, Language, and Science areas, but in a Toddler or Preschool/Kindergarten classroom in Montessori, there are a couple other areas that deserve just as much educational credit as the others.

Arguably the rest of the curriculum in a Montessori classroom becomes harder to teach without the presence of the Practical Life and Sensorial sections. These both are crucial because they both provide the child with the opportunity to refine and improve the motor skills necessary to move about independently and successfully in the classroom. Exercises in this area also give the child a wonderful development of what those of us in Montessori refer to as O.C.C.I. – Order, Concentration, Coordination, and Independence. Without the crucial refinement of these skills, the child is unlikely to succeed in the classroom. Order is important because it has been proven by many researchers that child have a strong desire and need for order. They need a routine, for things to have a place, otherwise their world is chaotic. Concentration is necessary to complete the longer and more time-consuming works. Coordination gives the child the grace they need to complete the work successfully and with confidence and less frustration. Independence makes for a happy child capable of doing many things for themselves and not relying on an adult to do things for which they are completely capable if given the chance. The two of these sections give ample experience for the child to improve their skills while learning more about their surroundings as well. This is part of the beauty of Maria Montessori’s didactic materials.

Practical Life

Sweeping the patio

The name of this section almost seems silly if you don’t realize how wonderful the materials are for the child. However after seeing the independence and control each child gains from working with these activities, I cannot imagine why all schools do not have something similar. Not only does this section work on a child’s independence, it also gives them the ability to use a lot of the more involved works they will later encounter in the classroom. A child can take out an activity that involves nothing but pouring water into glasses, then pouring the water back into the pitcher. What does the child gain from this? Refined, steady movements, the ability to pour water, and the confidence to do what is normally considered an adult-only task themselves. Without this practice, the child would have frustration encountering works later on that require the ability to pour water delicately. Without being able to use an eyedropper correctly, how would they add soap to a washing project, or colors to a color-mixing activity. Practical Life gives the child a wonderful base for skills used in everyday life. It allows them to perfect these movements which then creates a more independent and successful child. Some more examples of Practical Life activities include – Using tongs, using tweezers, using spoons to transfer objects, pouring various pastas, using a sponge, slicing and preparing food, cleaning up an area, sweeping, sewing, and many many more activities. Teaching these at a young age to children is amazing. They are completely capable of doing all of these things, even at the age of four. It is mesmerizing to watch a 4 year old wash, peel, slice, and serve a carrot as a snack to several other children and then completely clean up their workspace independently.

Clothes Washing

Sensorial

Colored Cylinders

A very aptly-named subject! The Sensorial section allows for refinement of the 5 senses – Taste, Smell, Touch, Sight, and Hearing. The materials here are designed in such a way as to isolate one of each sense to allow the child to examine it fully, and rely on it for the completion of the activity. There are Sound Cylinders which the child matches to each other, Tasting Bottles to experience the various tastes our tongue processes, Rough and Smooth tablets for the child to refine their sense of touch, and so many more activities. The Bells I referred to in my last post are a wonderful Auditory exercise. And what is the purpose of this section? First of all, it helps the child learn control of their movements, and gives them practice for identifying the world around them more clearly.  Sensorial also has a heavy mathematical undertone. Most of the works in this section are in sets of 10, providing the child with a habitual mental image of sets of 10 for the decimal system. The Binomial Cube and Trinomial Cube seem like simple wooden color puzzles to the 4 year old child, yet later in an older classroom they can dissect the cube’s mathematical equations. Language is also heavily developed in this section providing the child with more descriptive terms to apply to the world around them – Thick, thin, heavy, light, short, wide, skinny, and so many more terms to be used instead of “big” or “small”.

Hue Matching Tablets

Two wonderful and amazingly beautiful sections of the classroom come together to help the child be more independent, successful, and observant in the big world around them.

What is the interest…

I can see it sometimes in the eyes of the parents touring the school who have never seen Montessori. They look at the shelves and materials, and they’re thinking “Why would my child want to do this?” Even speaking to people who don’t believe in Montessori, or are skeptics of the philosophy think “Where is the appeal? Just looks like a bunch of wood pieces, their toys at home have that.” There are many reasons the children love to work with the Montessori materials! The works give them so much to do while they learn from the didactic materials: purposeful movement, development of concentration, coordination, independence, and sense of order.

I have been teaching myself to open my eyes more in the classroom. At times as a teacher, we train ourselves to focus on only the negative activities taking place in the classroom, instead of focusing on the positive things happening around us. In doing so, I have witnessed the children truly blossoming when working with the materials.

One example of this is a few days ago, I noticed one boy who typically doesn’t like to focus very long on his work. He would retrieve one bell from the Bells work off the shelf and walk back to his table. Without even sitting down, he’d strike the bell once, then return the bell and come back with another. Since I am currently going through the Sensorial unit in my AMS training, I have been trying to take pictures of the kids working with Sensorial materials. I stood out of his sight in the doorway and kept trying to set up shots, but because he was moving so quickly it was near impossible. Every picture came out blurry. I was stubborn however, since I have no pictures of the bells yet. I was very determined to get at least one usable shot! Then the most amazing thing happened – something I have only read about in Maria Montessori’s books – He retrieved another bell and for some reason, this one caught his attention. He sat down for the first time since getting the work out, and rang the bell at least 15 times. He completely tuned out the classroom around him and focused on nothing but the sound of the bell ringing. The concentration on his face was absolutely beautiful.

(I think the movement in the picture is part of the beauty)

This was a wonderful example of spontaneous concentration that is often evident in children. Something about what they are doing – merely the repeating of the action captures their attention, and every aspect of it must be experienced fully. The child feels the need to hear the sound, feel the sound, repeat the movement, and truly FEEL all of it throughout their body. The simple materials provided in a Montessori environment allow the child to focus on the pure movements and senses used with the activity. In the Teacher’s Manuals towards the end of each written lesson, there is an area called “Points of Interest”. These are the specific parts of the activity or work that draw the attention of the child. When a child is pouring water between two pitchers, some Points of Interest might be: Hearing the sounds of the water as it pours, feeling the change of weight as one pitcher empties and the other fills, the movement of the water, the temperature of the water, the feel of the containers, et cetera. We take all of these sensory experiences for granted, but for the child they are brand new! We know the sound of a cup as it fills with water. A child finds the beauty in this, and wants to repeat the exercise over and over.

The didactic materials in the classroom provide the opportunity for the isolation of the senses, and give the child the purity of the lesson to be learned. I discussed this in the Pink Cubes entry – that instead of the numbered and colorful cubes, the Sensorial section provides simple and natural cubes that allow the child to fine tune their visual sense with size discrimination.

Of course I have been heavily relying lately on the importance of the Sensorial section – Forgive me! This is merely because it is what I’m learning right now, so it is forefront in my mind. This does not make it more important than any other section in the classroom! I personally just find the Sensorial section so amazing, because it is the one section unique to Montessori education. The materials found here are not found in many other schools of thought. I see the success that they bring to the child: the exploration and development that occurs is something that helps the child understand the world around them.

Control of Error

Before I head into this subject, I would just like to thank everyone for their amazing support and compliments! I really didn’t expect this many people to read this or be that interested in what I write! I’m doing my best to write each piece as if I’m explaining this to someone who knows nothing about Montessori. If anything is ever unclear, please let me know!

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A Montessori environment is certainly a very unique one. If you ever have the chance to tour a Montessori “Children’s House” (as Maria Montessori called them) try to do so during a work period. What you will see is amazing – instead of sitting at desks, the children are at small tables, or on mats on the floor working with materials. One child may have out what appears to be just some plain blocks of varying sizes. Another child is slowly making their way around the room dusting the shelves. In one corner, a small group of children are gathered around a peer’s table admiring his finished book of flower parts. And even more impressive, there is not a teacher sitting with each child, hovering over them and correcting them. How on earth do they manage that? Clearly, if you’ve been around children, you know that everything they do is often filled with “oops”es – so how are these children actually learning anything if the teacher isn’t there directing them and explaining everything?

Maria Montessori designed her classrooms to be simple, true to life, and natural. In going through my training currently one of the many things I am learning about is how every single activity has multiple aspects that lead to the child being more independent. If the success of the child cannot be guaranteed, it is not an acceptable lesson. So not only did Maria design them to be beautiful, but each one has several lessons to be learned from it and they must be able to assist the child in learning successfully. Quite an intimidating thought, but if you break down the aspects of each work, you can see how the independence of the child thrives on the mechanics of each lesson. Every Montessori work has something called the Control of Error built into it. In my training, this is just one of the parts of each work we must learn, but today I saw some wonderful examples of Control of Error which is what brought it to my mind tonight when I sat down to write.

In a previous post I discussed the Pink Cubes, and their simple beauty. Building the cubes into a tower is just one way to do the work – there are very many variations that can be done. When the work is put away, just as the picture shows, it is put away in the tower formation. The Control of Error for building the Pink Cubes in the tower formation is a very simple one – if a child puts the wrong size cube towards the bottom or middle of the tower, it presents an obvious visual discrepancy. You wouldn’t think the children would mind it being a little wonky or off-kilter, but their amazing little minds thrive on order. I could go on and on with examples on how this has been proven in Child Development, instead I will say I frequently get children correcting works not put away correctly on the shelves. I do not ask them to, they do it because they desire that order. So when the child building the tower of Pink Cubes has the tower suddenly collapse on itself, they simply try again. It’s mesmerizing to watch a child put the cubes on top of each other slowly and carefully, then center each cube on the one below it before adding the next one.  In the Practical Life section of the classroom, the Control of Error commonly found in a Montessori teacher’s Manual are things like “water is spilled on tray” or “not all beans are transferred from one bowl to the other”. Such seemingly simple concepts enable the child to be very independent in the classroom and successful in learning from their activities. With these Controls of Error, the teacher doesn’t need to watch over the child and say “Oh, perhaps you should try putting that block first so your tower doesn’t fall over.” It may seem difficult, and sometimes downright hard to not interfere with the child working, but as a Montessori teacher I am learning to trust the Control of Error, and leave the child to learn on their own.

Trinomial Cube
Hmm, the lid isn't fitting...
Trinomial Cube
Trying to adjust the cubes for a better fit

This child did eventually correct his errors and was able to close the Trinomial box successfully.

If instead of this specifically designed box for the work, the children were just to put all of the pieces afterwards into a bag or basket, the work would be not only more cumbersome to retrieve off of the shelf, but the Control of Error wouldn’t have a chance to shine through. The child might attempt to put the cubes in the box in order and find they don’t fit. What is then the drive in the child to complete the work? They can just throw the pieces into the basket and go find a different work. Instead, this is how the work is stored so even a casual attempt at doing this activity leads to learning how to put the cubes in order.

Because of these well-designed works, the children become remarkably independent. It never ceases to amaze me how independent Montessori children are. Everyday I am surprised (somehow, you’d think I’d know better by now!) how adept they are at handling themselves. Instead of me filling their water-bottles when they are empty, the kids often say “I can do it!” They clean up completely after themselves, straighten up and maintain our classroom, and even at the age of three and four years assist with daily chores. This is a great lesson in independence in children – why shouldn’t we let them assist us in daily tasks? You have to ask yourself, what is the worst thing that can happen? Perhaps you have to clean up a small spill, or re-tidy a shelf when they aren’t looking – but the smile on their face when they proclaim “Look! I did it!” is worth so much more. They are capable of so much more than we give them credit for!