It is an educational system and a way of life that has been with us in OC for more than 50 years, but do you know what defines a Montessori most?
By Noë Gold
In 1970, Mrs. Qudsia Roston, who is intimately connected to the Montessori system, by virtue of the fact that she grew up in Dr. Maria Montessori’s household, started the Roston Montessori Institute for Teacher Training, to develop the new breed of educators here in Orange County, notes Lynne Mills, the Administrator of 51-year-old Heritage Montessori.
“We chose this name for our school because of the rich Montessori tradition that goes back for generations,” Mills says. “Heritage still uses her training method and notes, most of which are directly from Dr. Montessori’s original course.”
Heritage’s newest 4.5 million dollar state-of-the art campus in Lake Forest opened in September. While the campus is new and updated for the digital age, the school continues to exemplify the classic Montessori principles and philosophy of life embodied in Dr. Montessori’s book “The Absorbent Mind”: a unique method of education using innovative materials with which to educate, and a system of training which is capable of producing teachers who give children the best possible foundation for life with one primary directive to “follow the child.”
We polled administrators at some of the more than 40 Montessori schools in our area to find out what that principle means to them. VP of Outreach at LePort Schools Heike Larson, for instance, defines it in the first of these Top Ten Ingredients for a Montessori School as identifying “ what lessons the child has mastered, and what lesson will provide just the right next challenge.”
1. A “follow the child” approach, based in careful observation
Leport Schools’ Heike Larson says teachers observe each child carefully, and identify what lessons the child has mastered, and what lesson will provide the next challenge. For example, once a child has learned a dozen letter-sound associations with the Sandpaper Letters, the teacher may introduce simple word-building exercises with the Moveable Alphabet. While there is a clear sequence of materials, and while there are learning benchmarks during the three years of the Montessori preschool program, we follow the child in the pace and specific path we take through these lessons.
Debbie Warkentein of Rancho Viejo Montessori says children need a connection with nature. Montessori schools around the world strive to create an environment where children interact with plants and animals daily and naturally. These junior botanists and zoologists learn how to care for our world through outdoor gardens and a variety of plants and animals in the classroom. They carefully tend the plants and polish their leaves. They feed and water and clean the birds, fish, hamsters, snakes and turtles to help them develop an understanding of our Earth, and how they are interconnected with nature.
3. Continually adapting the environment in order that the child may fulfill his greatest potential physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
According to Lynne Mills of Heritage Montessori, while the Montessori Method does away with the necessity of coercion by means of rewards and punishments, it achieves a higher, active discipline than other approaches that originates within the child and is not imposed from without. Primanti Montessori of Whittier’s Aza Voskanyan notes that students care for their environment by taking care of classroom pets by providing hands-on care for various animals and reptiles such as a classroom bunny. Primanti Montesssori school fosters learning in an environment where students are free to begin work on the task of their choice. Students are encouraged to be self- directed, and are allowed to finish their task without time limitations. This helps them feel a sense of accomplishment and in turn build self-esteem.
4. Montessori classrooms incorporate art, music, dance and creative drama throughout the curriculum.
Aza Voskanyan of Primanti Montessori of Whittier says the structure of the classroom environment allows the child to have self-discipline. The three-year age group allows older children to take on a leadership role and younger students to imitate and follow the good examples set forth by older classmates. The mere presence of the older 4 and 5-year-olds motivates the younger 2- and 3-year-olds to master skills in order to work on more advanced and complicated materials. Lynne Mills from Heritage Montessori explains that imagination plays a central role, as children explore how the natural world works, visualize other cultures and ancient civilizations, and search for creative solutions to real-life problems. At Heritage, the Arts are normally integrated into the rest of the curriculum where imagination and creativity is encouraged.
5. The Montessori Method calls for free activity within a prepared environment.
Mrs. Roston explains: “An educational environment tailored to basic human and child characteristics and to the specific characteristics of children at different ages. This allows for the children to be observed so they can learn and can develop at their own rate. Eighty percent of a child’s brain is formed by the age of four to four and one-half.” The curriculum includes the expansion of the vocabulary, math, etc., and the children also study movement because Dr. Montessori always said she was amazed by what the children taught her, even though she was there to teach them.
Dr. Montessori believed that children go through a phase when they are able to learn specific skills naturally, a “sensitive period … a special sensibility which a creature acquires in its infantile state, while it is still in a process of evolution. It is a transient disposition and limited to the acquisition of a particular trait. Once this trait or characteristic has been acquired, the special sensibility disappears … .” While all children go through the same sensitive periods (e.g., a period for language development, a period for vision development, etc.), the sequence and timing differ for each child. Our teachers continually observe children to determine the stage of sensitivity and provide materials and experiences for optimum development, explains Minnie Malik from Mission Viejo Montessori.
7. Testing versus performance.
Lynne Mills of Heritage Montessori explains that teachers give their students informal and formal exams or have the children demonstrate what they have learned by either teaching a lesson to another child or by giving a formal presentation. The children also take and prepare their own written tests to administer to their friends. Montessori children usually don’t think of assessment techniques as tests so much as challenges. Students are normally working toward mastery rather than a standard letter grade scheme. However, a competent Montessori school will provide grade equivalents in a progress report for parents in the event that the child leaves the Montessori system. Very few Montessori schools test children under the age of five; however, most Montessori schools regularly give elementary students quizzes on the concepts and skills that they have been studying.
8. Freedom within limits.
According to Minnie Malik, at first, a Montessori classroom may look unstructured as children are busily attending to their classroom exploration freely. However, freedom of choice does not mean that children are free to behave unsafely or without respect for themselves, each other, or the environment. At the same time, our teachers adhere to a curriculum that guides the education of each child. We structure individual lessons, and occasionally group lessons, with order and structure that support learning without adding pressure to learning. Children learn at their own pace, along their own interests, with guidance and encouragement from the teachers.
9. Is Montessori unstructured?
Debbie Warkentein of Rancho Viejo Montessori School says that people sometimes ask if Montessori is that school where children do whatever they want. Or is Montessori so rigid the children don’t have any fun. It is neither! A Montessori classroom is beautifully ordered. The classroom is organized into areas for practical life, sensorial, language, math and cultural studies. The materials on the shelves are ordered from left to right. Within this structure there is great freedom. The children move through the curriculum at their own pace, choosing activities or work from this academic area or that. The children know the order and maintain it themselves. The teacher guides the students as they work toward mastery in all areas of development and academics. It is the structure and order of the classroom that allows the children such freedom.
10. What is meant by “Practical Life”?
Lynne Mills of Heritage Montessori explains that what practical life achieves in your child is first a feeling of, ‘I can take care of myself whether it’s table washing or tying shoes. I am given a sense of security in having some control over my environment and my place in it. Second, it teaches me how to follow steps to success. Third, it builds my confidence by having mastered some challenge, which prepares me to tackle even more complex challenges. Fourth, it refines senses and muscular control so I can effectively use all the hands-on materials in the Montessori classroom to advance my intellectual development. Every sense, motion and action is focused to help me achieve academically. The academic success you hear about is built on humble and less than impressive activities that are foundational to this achievement that develops the whole child and prepares them for significant academic success.