Monday, January 24, 2011

How Does Montessori Do It?

This morning I took DS (aged 3 years, 3 months) to a local Montessori preschool for an in-class observation before we formally complete the registration paperwork and pay a deposit to secure his spot in this fall's entering class. The plan is for DS to go at least 3 mornings a week the year he turns 4 (this fall), and then either 4 or 5 mornings or full days a week (we'll see how the upcoming year goes) the year he turns 5; then he'll be off to our local public school for K-12. I've blogged about the public school choice issue before, and right now the plan is to send him to the school in our home district; I'm pretty sure we're not going to want to choice into the away district's dual language school when the time comes. Our friend's first grader is having a hellacious year there with the district's crazy, ineffective discipline policy (called "Make Your Day") and the administration has been no help, so we've pretty much written them off.

Today I was completely blown away by how this entire room of 3, 4, 5, and 6 year-olds was just so eerily quiet, with each and every child focused on their "work" (aka oddly interesting pieces of toddler & preschooler crack) at these small tables or on all of these neatly-arranged floor mats. Then I was blown away yet again by the fact that my son actually participated in this unspoken routine of his own volition (!!), without any type of struggle (!!), and was transformed right before my eyes into a model little citizen within this unique little world without needing much instruction. After an hour and a half of observation, the teacher (beloved by all in Podunkville, and I can see why) proclaimed he would fit right in, and said she looked forward to welcoming him this fall. Then she said she needed to make a note to herself not to ever touch him again without his permission first because he physically bristled at her when she touched his arm while she was showing him how to do a "work," and she said he was the first child in all her years to react in that particular way to her touch, and she was truly impressed. Huh? I almost fell over. I think I finally met someone who "gets" my kid! It was pretty cool that she chose to view his reaction in such a positive light, and formed a strategy for working with him that didn't automatically label him a misfit.

I can't stop thinking about how well DS meshed with this place. You recall that this is the kid who, once he turned the dreaded 3, had to quit pretty much every activity we used to enjoy. This is a kid who has a reputation of being just very hard in general, as in 'Your Spirited Child' to a T. So I was sure he'd hate the place. I've never been happier to say I was wrong!

Now I kind of want to know how it is that they do it. I understand that the term "Montessori" does not reflect a trademarked brand, and so it can mean a million different things depending on the school. Even in Podunkville we have 2 "Montessoris" - one that the locals refer to as "the real Montessori" meaning every kid has to go 5 days a week and commit to 3 years including Kindergarten; and the place we attended today, aka what the locals call "the fake Montessori" where there is flexibility as to the level of attendance. Anyway, I was majorly impressed, but left before I could really figure out the proverbial secret sauce they have going on in there. My guess is DS really connected with the getting to choose his own "work" to do, where he could just jump right in, and not have to sit there in a circle on a carpet square, and talk or listen to other people singing, or do craft projects he isn't into - which were the common themes of all the activities he now hates. Hmmm.....


Jac. said...

Our DS is in five morning a week Montessori. It's not strict Montessori because they do permit fantasy and imaginative play (like dressing up for Halloween which strict Montessori wouldn't allow). He started a week before his 3rd birthday. It has been nothing short of a miracle. Since our boys are separated at birth twins, I think the success of Montessori for little monsters like ours is three-fold:

1. Before they really start learning anything (like math and reading) they do "life skills" which is really a whole lot of washing, polishing, carrying, cutting, etc. This is repetitive physical work and DS loves moving. The Montessori theory is that the physical repetition is needed to calm them down so that their mind is receptive to more academic learning. Also, you may notice that they do a lot of things from left to right (like spooning beans from one bowl to another) which seems random but they get them started early doing things from left to right so that when it comes time to read their eyes are already trained to follow that way.

2. You hit the nail on the head with the individualistic nature of Montessori - kids work individually or in small groups but are not REQUIRED to do anything they don't want to. If a kid is not engaged in an activity, they are steered towards another activity, but their own interests are always paramount. Seriously, I think my son has spent about half an hour every day for the last four months using scissors to cut small pieces of paper. He loves cutting, and the teachers think it's great because it's building strength in his dominant hand which will help him when he learns to write.

3. The integrated ages in the class room - there are older kids who he looks up to and likes to emulate (nothing like peer pressure starting early) and there are younger kids to help. I don't know about yours, but my boy LOVES to "help".

In case you can't tell, I am in love with our Montessori school. I was so nervous ahead of time but it has just been the best decision. I was really concerned too about sending him five mornings a week after he was at home with a nanny full-time but I think it actually made it easier because his routine is the same every day.

mom2boy said...

I am super jealous that you have such great Montessori options in Podunkville. There are two similar Montessori options here. One "real" AMI accredited and then another more like a small private montessori influenced school. But neither really wow me from afar. I should probably take an actual tour of the schools. But I really want him in the school with the roaming peacocks and that has to wait until I get out of school. I'm really happy you guys had such a great experience. It is awesome to find a person/school that "gets" your kid.

Cloud said...

I don't know how they do it. Peer pressure? Our innate instinct to conform? I wonder if it is harder to get a Montessori class started than it is to assimilate new kids as they join?

caramama said...

I think Jac covers most of it. I would also add that the "work" they do is very hands on. Kids like your boy and my girl need physical things to get them into what they are doing. Sitting there listening to a teacher lecture for any long amount of time is not going to hold my daughter's interest at all. But show her and then let her be hands-on with the material? It's amazing!

Oh, and one last thing I've noticed is that even though they seem to conform to the rules of the classroom, the teachers really respect their individuality and uniqueness. Even the things that would get them labeled negatively in another school. The method teaches the teachers to appreciate the different personalities, needs and preferences of the kids, and what kid doesn't appreciate that? It's much easier to be quiet and do your work neatly if the teacher knows what you are interested in and understands the best way to communicate with you.

I absolutely love the Montessori school and method of teaching/learning. It's been wonderful for my spirited girl.

Good luck with the school!

hush said...

@Jac - "Since our boys are separated at birth twins, I think the success of Montessori for little monsters like ours is..." LOL! If it is working for your son, I have a funny feeling it will work well for mine, too - which is great to know! Thank you for explaining the Montessori magic so eloquently.

@mom2boy - "The school with the roaming peacocks" sounds frickin' cool, like something out of a Mira Nair movie. DH's great aunts in CT have a random peacock on their property that escaped from a local sanctuary, and that they and others have tried to return there many times. They are apparently impossible to get rid of once they decide they are happy somewhere (peacocks, that is, not DH's great aunts).

@Cloud - I think it would probably be harder to start a Montessori class from scratch than to continue one where a bunch of the kids already know the routine and the new ones can be integrated into it via peer pressure, etc.

@Caramama - So glad to hear your Pumpkin has had a lot of success and joy at her Montessori! I think that bodes very well for my kid, too, who also fits those descriptors!