Montessori Pedagogy Blog
The start of school is upon us. We’re either already with our class full of glorious little souls or we’re just about to meet them. Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind during these critical first few weeks of school.
First, if the children haven’t started yet, do your best to get every child in for a visit before the first day (see our Preschool Orientation blog post for details). If you can’t get them in, give their families a call to touch base and introduce yourself.
We all want our children to normalize and blossom and yet many of us run into similar stumbling blocks. We know that before the children will thrive in our prepared environment, they have to feel safe, welcome, and socially connected to us. So, we begin by forming a friendly relationship with each child. But, once we have established this, there are several common areas that often give us trouble:
- The Physical Environment
- The Daily Routine
- The Procedure for Giving Lessons
- Our Precision in Giving Lessons
- The Sequence of Lessons (with an emphasis on Preliminary Exercises & Grace and Courtesy)
The Physical Environment
The children's need for order dramatically affects their behavior. So, get down on your hands and knees and take a crawl around your classroom. As you do, ask yourself these questions:
I have been amazed again and again at how effective these gentle, indirect approaches can be for the young child. We don't even admit that anything untoward happened in the moment. We just redirect the attention and move on. Then, later (see below), we come back and teach the preferred behaviors that may have prevented the conflict. By so doing, we avoid the common trap of making some children "bad" kids. If we call out their name or emphasize the problem, we draw the attention of the entire room to the negative event. But if we discretely redirect the attention, we do not inadvertently contribute to a culture of negativity in the room.
When you must address the conflict head-on, do so directly and briefly—no lectures, no big conversations or explanations. Speak directly to the issue just as Mr. Brown said in the video. You might say, “No, we do not hit each other at school.” It’s important to add this last prepositional phrase because it may be the case that the children witness people being hit regularly in other environments. We don’t want to create further confusion if the child is seeing different behaviors in different settings. Remember that children will naturally adapt to the behaviors they see around them…the good, the bad, and the ugly. And, they see their ‘people’ as normal no matter if they act like Barak Obama, Queen Elizabeth, or a bully.
When we begin our own primary (ages 3 to 6+) classrooms, we need to make a decision about our sandpaper letters and movable alphabet--which font do we choose? But, many of us inherit a classroom and must use the font we have. Or, we must follow the culture of our school so there is consistency from room to room. In any event, this is a topic Montessori guides consider deeply.
Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any specific, convincing studies that directly answer the question of which font is preferred. This is why Maitri Learning offers our movable alphabets in all three of the fonts commonly used for the sandpaper letters.
The question of font, however, has been indirectly answered.
“Old Montessorians never die, they just fade and observe.”
- Author unknown
I was observing in a primary classroom the other day when I saw an utterly enthralled 4-year-old boy doing the hand washing work. His hands were in the beautiful blue and white basin and he was smiling as he turned the water over and under each hand.
Soon he let out a sigh which apparently meant he was ready for the next step. He lifted his hands out of the basin, dried them on the towel, grasped the sides of the basin, and went to empty it. But into what? The perfectly coordinated pail was sitting ready for him on the shelf beneath the basin but it went completely unnoticed. Instead, the boy put the basin back on the table and placed the matching blue and white pitcher on the ground in front of the table. He then proceeded to meticulously pour the basin water into the wide-mouth of the pitcher! No easy task, let me assure you, yet very little water was spilled.
I've been working with Libertas Public Montessori School in Memphis. One of our many projects is to open a new Primary class. So, I've been investing a great deal of time in looking at material suppliers, thinking about plants, and measuring heights for tables and chairs. Since I know I'm not the only one doing this work, I decided to post my thoughts and discoveries here so we can all benefit...and maybe get a few of you to post some replies!
Sometimes our space has many low windows that bring a gorgeous natural landscape right into our classrooms. Sometimes, we have cinder block walls up to a drop ceiling. We have to work with what we have but in all cases, we must prioritize the natural world. Not just because I say so, but because research shows that views of nature have significant effects on attention and learning.
If you have windows with views of nature, showcase them. Put your easel right in front of them. Set many tables so that they look out on the vista. Banish your curtains and shades unless the sunlight is blinding.
If your windows look out on a parking lot or a busy walkway, hang half or quarter curtains. You want these at about 4-5' high and extending just to the window sill. The objective is to protect the child's attention by blocking unsightly or busy views while still letting in as much natural light and sky views as possible. Make sense?
If you don't have windows, bring nature in. Get plants that will grow in the lighting you have,... lots of them. Give serious thought to a large fish tank or other pet terrarium. Minimize your use of fluorescent overhead lights and invest in lamps with those great bulbs that mimic natural light. (Be mindful of the cords, though. Keep those safely tucked away.) Build a canopy out of sticks. Get creative and find ways to make your classroom alive with the natural world. (Click on the photo for links to more ideas from childroots.)
I remember the first parent-teacher conference I had. My daughter was not quite 3 years old and I had no idea what to expect. Her teacher, Maggie Radzik (an amazing Montessorian who deeply inspired me), sat down with me and said, "She's doing fine. I have no concerns. Do you have any questions?"
That was unexpected. She let me lead the dialogue and I had TONS of questions (like what are those "metal insects" my daughter wants to get her hands on so badly and how come she puts on her shoes all by herself here but not at home). That was the beginning of our teacher-parent friendship. It was also my introduction to this Montessori way of non-judgmentally and optimistically accepting each child for who they are.
Later, when I was a trained Montessorian myself and had to hold my own parent-teacher conferences, I always kept Maggie's example in mind. I don't think I did as well as her at first. I was nervous. I spoke too much. Sometimes I got caught up in deviations rather than focusing on normalization. But in every meeting, it turned out that the parents were actually the teachers and I was the student.
The other day, I had the great pleasure of observing at a brand new Public Montessori School in Memphis, TN. Libertas Montessori school has been opened for not quite 9 months. 95% of their children live in poverty. In case you aren't familiar with this, children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds face incredible challenges. One challenge that's been studied a lot is their diminished exposure to vocabulary.
At lunch time, I sat at a table with a few children and opened the healthy lunch one of the teachers (Carly Riley, also known as Dobby the house elf) made me. Among the dishes Carly prepared for me was half an avocado with the pit still in. This was like a bowl full of diamonds before the children. One after another, they approached me and asked, "Are you going to eat that?" And they'd touch the pit still sitting in the avocado.
So here was an opportunity to share my knowledge...yippee!! We spoke about the skin and pit (like an orange with seeds) and the flesh (mashed up for guacamole) and our relationship began. In that moment, they knew that they could look to me for knowledge. I had to file away the need to give them a grace & courtesy lesson about not sticking their fingers into someone's lunch and join them in their curiosity.
This tiny little interaction revealed the glorious and fragile nature of the absorbent mind. Young children are curious, open-hearted, and courageous. They are driven to answer the question, "What is this world?" As they went to sort their leftovers into the compost bins, they had to stop by and engage with that foreign object I brought into their world. They had no fear (or inhibitory control). Their interest in learning about the world trumped all else. It is easy to loose sight of that truth when a child with a runny nose and snot on their hand touches your lunch!
So, you’re considering a Montessori school. Maybe you’ve read about the growing evidence that supports the long-term benefits of Montessori education. Maybe someone you know enrolled their child in a program and is always pestering you to put your child there. Maybe it’s just an accident (as happened with me) that when you feel your child is ready for school, the closest one to you happens to be a Montessori school. Whatever the reason, when you show up, you want to know that that particular school is a good school.
The Physical Space
Now we can’t all live in the Taj Mahal so the school may not be housed in the most modern building (we all have to start somewhere), but what you should see is that the space has something lovely about it. You’ll have a feeling that someone cared about the entryway, the hallways, the offices, the rooms, and, oh yes, the bathrooms. The walls will not be cluttered or overwhelming. Overall, it will feel calm, inviting, and maybe even elegant.
It may also make you feel like a bit of a giant because the whole school should be adapted to fit the smaller physical bodies of the students it serves. So, you should see benches, chairs, and/or tables that are quite small. Sinks will likely be lowered or the ground raised with solid stools. At all points, there will be a sense of order, care, and intelligence in the physical design.