I had an interesting conversation with a prospective parent recently who teaches at a local college. She shared that she and her colleagues are constantly discussing “how underprepared kids are for college in terms of ‘soft skills.’” By soft skills she meant skills other than the purely academic — the personal qualities, habits and attitudes that make someone a successful college student and, by extension, a good boss or employee later in life. She had just come from an observation in toddlers and primary and was surprised to have seen that in Montessori, “starting in toddlers students develop the self-motivation, independence, and follow-through that many college students lack!” In other words, beginning at these very young ages, Montessori children are already developing the soft skills that will benefit them so greatly later in life.
If you saw me walking across campus with a clipboard in my hand, I would probably be on my way to substitute in a primary (3- to 6-year-old) classroom. I keep a stack of blank slips of paper and a pencil on the clipboard, because I know how much new readers simply love reading handwritten words and phrases. It is simply magic to them that I can have an idea in my head and make it manifest on a piece of paper and that they can decode it! It’s an excitement that all of the Bob Books and other primers in the world can never match.
“Your children go to Montessori school? I heard that’s fine for preschoolers, but when they are older, won’t they need something different?”
In September I was observing in a primary class and happened to be present as the teacher gave a lesson to a three-year-old girl on cleaning a chalkboard. They were both wearing aprons, carried a bucket, sponge, towel and underlay to a table, and then brought a small, and very dusty, student-size chalkboard to the table, as well. The little girl watched with rapt attention as the teacher dipped the sponge in the bucket of water, squeezed it out and then began to wipe. As she wiped from left to right across the surface of the chalkboard, it changed from chalky white to a dark, shiny green before the child’s eyes.
I recently visited a Montessori school in Arizona and had the opportunity to observe in the toddler classroom. On this particular morning there were eight children present, the youngest being 18 months of age and the oldest close to 30 months. It was toward the end of the morning, and the children were choosing their own activities. One little boy was using the colorful wooden rings of a stacking toy, while nearby another was working on his buttoning skills. Several children were engaged in art activities – coloring, pasting shapes on paper, and modeling clay – while others were matching objects to corresponding pictures.
On a recent morning I had two sets of prospective parents scheduled to observe in the same primary class (mixed-age of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds), a half hour apart. One of the more satisfying parts of my job is to meet with prospective parents after their first observation in a Montessori school. I usually start the conversation by asking, “What did you see in the classroom? Did anything surprise you? What were your impressions?”
I asked this group of well-educated professionals what they remembered from their own education about pi. Someone responded, “3.14159.” “You’re right,” I said, “that is the value of pi, but does anyone remember what pi means?” At once they seemed to adopt the sheepish demeanor of students in a traditional math class, each of whom is saying to him or herself: “I should know this but am afraid to answer because I might get it wrong. I hope the teacher doesn’t call on me!” To relieve their discomfort, I supplied the answer: “It is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.”
It is only after much exploration of the fractions as shapes, that we move on to defining, naming and writing them. “When we break a unit into pieces of the same size we call those fractions. When we divide the whole unit into two parts, we call each part a half. This is the family name. We write the family name ‘half’ as a 2 under a line. The number under the line, that tells us which family we are talking about, is called the denominator.” In this way we proceed, slowly and with much repetition, to teach the names of the fractions, three at a time.
At a recent school event, a parent asked about music in the Montessori classroom. It’s a legitimate question, as sometimes we are so excited to share with parents the math or language or science or geometry materials, that we forget to talk about art and music, although we hold them in equal esteem with the more purely “academic” pursuits.
As they find activities that meet their inner need for self-development and as their space and autonomy are respected, a sense of calm and purposefulness settles over the classroom. Perhaps it is magic, after all.
I like to think that maybe she found the experience inspiring nonetheless, and that perhaps the Montessori children had taught her just a little bit more about creativity…
Focus on developing your family’s own holiday traditions, the ones that arise from your own childhood and your family’s culture and religion, and give your children that most precious gift of all, the gift of your undivided attention and time, of a shared experience of meaning and texture.
They are surprised by the children’s independence, and by the overall atmosphere of calmness and happiness in both environments. They are also brimming with questions and reactions. As Mr. S phrases it, “Although I was very impressed by the children’s purposefulness and engagement, it’s just not what I was expecting. It’s not what I’m used to. How on earth do you accomplish this?”
It’s not that Montessori only works with exceptional children. Rather, from our point of view, every child is blessed with exceptional potential, your child included.
One of my jobs is to meet with prospective parents after what is often their first observation in a Montessori classroom. My first question to them is simply, “What did you see?” Here are the actual quotes from observers in toddler and primary classes with whom I met this November, in response to that question