Monday, November 4, 2013

My Experience At A Montessori School - Primary

I'm going to do a small series on my experiences at the local Montessori school in my city. If you live anywhere close by a Montessori school, and you are homeschooling with the Montessori method, my best suggestion to you would be to try your best to have a tour of the school, and inquire as to whether you would be allowed to observe the classroom(s) at all. I can honestly say that being able to talk 1-1 with the teachers and observe in these classrooms has been some of the most important learning experiences for ME as I began my Montessori teaching journey.


The first time I went to visit, my main focus was on watching the primary class. At the time, I didn't think I would be completely changing the way I taught - I just wanted to find something for my little ones to do while the older child were doing their school work. I'm going to share a little about the environment, the children, and the teacher.

THE MONTESSORI  PRIMARY CLASSROOM

montessori preschool and kindergarten classroom yorkville IL
photo creditPeaceful Pathways Montessori

I walked in and it didn't take long to see how the room was set up, and that it was the way it was for a purpose. I want to say that there was a small kitchenette area at the far end of the classroom, off to the left, so naturally there were several small tables to the right of it, and the shelves surrounding and in the midst of it were full of practical life/fine motor skills works. As you moved away from that area, there was a large rug, but the shelves on either side of it began the sensory materials. Even farther still were the math works, then language close to where I was, and behind me, at the opposite end of the classroom from the PL were the grammar and writing shelves. At first, I liked the organizational way it was set up, but after thinking  more about it, I realized there was a two-fold purpose. Practical Life is one of the first steps in the primary age.
Deb at Living Montessori Now has a wonderful post all about practical life and the role in the classroom - you can find it here. She also has posts on recommended practical life materials, and one on where you can find Montessori practical life videos. A three year old coming in to the Montessori classroom is going to spend a great deal of time working with these materials, as well as the sensorial - all on one side of the room. As you move, you progress in to the Math, Grammar, Reading, Writing - things that are for students with more experience in the classroom. It is very well set up, as I'm sure all primary classrooms are, and I recommend that if you have multiple ages in your homeschool, especially if you have a wide range, you do the same. There is no stopping the curiosity when it comes to a young child trying to see what everyone else is doing - I can't ever make that promise. BUT - if they know where 'their' shelves are, and of course - can easily get them - it will make it easier to have a productive time with them.


THE PRIMARY CHILD

photo creditMontessori south riding

I'm going to break this up into three sub-catergories:

(1) The normalized  child

(2) The semi-normalized child

(3) The newbie :)

(1) - The normalized child - they were everywhere! When I first stepped in, the principal quietly explained that they use the phrase "Please Be Excused", and simply said that if any of the children try to come up and have conversation with me, to say the same. She said most would understand and know to walk away. The normalized children were the ones who NEVER came to try and talk. That doesn't make them unsocial - there was a good deal of talking amongst themselves, as they worked and moved around the class. They just knew that I wasn't a part of the classroom, and they had a mission in mind that didn't include me. I was, of course, shocked to see what could be done so easily by a young mind when given the concrete materials to understand it with, and enjoyed watching 4 and 5 year- old children building numbers in to the thousands, and counting money. I did notice that my presence, however quiet and still I was in my little chair (yes - a perk of being in primary - I got the *ahem* blessing of sitting in a tiny chair - one I haven't fit in to since I was below double digits in age!).caused many to take their work somewhat farther away than they might have under normal circumstances. One thing that I did notice, and I remembered much later, is that the teacher still had to remind them to not sit and chat, and sometimes encourage two that were 'working together' and doing more talking than working, to find separate things to do. A Montessori environment will not take the CHILD out of your child. It's important to stress that - it makes them no less apt to want to talk, and enjoy the company of others. What it does do, is take that drive to socialize and use it to encourage younger ones to learn from older ones. They will not ignore their surroundings completely, although while in the middle of working on something, a normalized child will - for the most part - concentrate wholly on what they are doing and be able to work in spite of the other 15 children around them working on other things. The depth of that concentration may depend on how 'in to' their work they are - if they have a strong desire, they may  be able to tune more out than normal. For the 'normalized' child to be interested in what is going on around them and take their eyes off their work to see what someone else is doing, or to want to observe another person working, does not make them unable to do their own work. Although you may not see as much observing in an older primary child, it is okay to see some - especially if they are watching someone even older than themselves. They are learning.

(2) The semi-normalized child - I'd like to say that, in my opinion, and from what I've seen, this is the child who has the ability to concentrate and complete a work cycle. They can choose something, and know what to do to go from start to finish successfully. They CAN work independently, and don't have to be given repeated presentations over and over, because they weren't listening the first time. However, there were these 'semi' normalized children in the classroom - some in their last year of primary, in fact. What factors go in to causing this is debatable. It could be that they started later than 3 yrs of age. It could be their extreme personality - the dramatic talker who is a MAJOR social butterfly and thrives off of company. It could be outside influences that keep them from settling down and focusing on their work - too much screen time, whether it be TV or video games - maybe something in their diet that has an adverse reaction on their behavior (Hoss can't eat red dye without getting a little - okay - a LOT - wired most of the time). I noticed, however, that these students - and there was honestly only one or two - had to be redirected often to go back to work, or to stop talking and interrupting others, or, in the case of one little girl, pulled to the teacher to sit right beside her. In fact, the teacher told me a few weeks later she had one young child (possibly the same one) that she had to have sit right behind her, back to back, and she worked, so that she could teach the others and at the same time, know that this child was still busy and not getting away from what she was supposed to be doing. None of this is done cruelly, or out of punishment, mind you - just simply that these children are not completely *there* and need a little more assistance.


photo credit Montessori south riding



(3) The Newbie - You could definitely tell where the three year old's were in the classroom. Not because they were loud - in fact, most of them were the least apt to socialize and talk to other students. There were maybe three or four that I :think: I picked out of the crowd. They were most often found observing, with their work sitting in front of them, untouched. They were found more often on the practical life side of the room, which was farthest from where I sat, so I didn't actually watch them as much. One little girl, however, was working on a simple work of matching bead bars to number cards beside me,so out of the corner of my eye I watched her - watching as she watched the older children build numbers in the thousands with the large number cards. I will venture to say she did this for a solid 10 minutes atleast - never moving, never speaking, just watching. It didn't take me long to know what she was doing - she was learning. Learning FROM THEM, although not being anywhere near ready to use that particular material. Learning how to work together, where to go for certain materials they needed for the bank game, seeing the two boys use them correctly, and watching as they meticulously put all their things back on the shelf and rolled their mats, only to go on their way. She did complete her work cycle, but not until she was finished learning from them. Both the semi-normalized children and the newbies were more likely to stop, look at me, get close and then walk away, or several times, ask what my name was or if I would  help them with something. 

Last, but certainly not least:

THE PRIMARY TEACHER

Montessori Classroom
photo credit Montessori glen-ed

There were actually two classrooms of primary students, but I was blessed to be able to be in one where the teacher had been working with young children for many, many years, and had been teaching primary Montessori for 14-15 years. The ever present "eye in the sky", she was, able to move her eyes quickly around the room and know in a glance what each child was doing. As was the case with the young newbie I told you about, she knew the little girl was sitting with her work. I'm sure she caught on to the fact that she was not completing it, but she had the great sense to not call out from even 5 or 6 feet away to tell her to finish. She let her quietly observe, and when she saw that her attention was no longer on the two boys, she came over and encouraged her to finish up, walking her through completely her tray. Whether on purpose or just happen-stance, she also brought two or three others to the rug right in front of me to work through a sound basket, although she cleverly made sure she was facing me, and their backs were to me, so they would work and not look at the stranger in classroom. I saw as she patiently encouraged one little guy to focus on his work while he was highly distracted, and gently but firmly remind two little girls that the work they chose really didn't need two people doing it. She kept up with everyone, taking every chance she could to record what was going on with each one and keep her records. I did find out later that even she, who has been doing this for so long, tends to break out in a cold sweat when she has four or five around her trying to get her attention, as she works to make sure she is keeping up with them all. So very down to earth, she is :) I was so excited to get a chance to come talk 1-1 with her a few weeks later - that was the only classroom in which there was absolutely no interaction between me and the teacher, and for obvious reasons.

I said I was going to try to keep this short, and I have failed. If you made it this far and have read the entire post - Congratulations! If you noticed words in bold print in the section where I spoke of the children, there was a purpose. These are things that I have had to re-hash in my mind more than once, and things that I needed to remember, because I was guilty of taking the opposite thought path on them! Through primary, I have learned that it's okay to let them observe. It's okay if the younger ones don't complete a work cycle quickly - it's even okay if some can't make it through! Just encourage them to do what they can. I learned from this particular teacher that, as in the case of my 4 year old, there are some that take longer to be independent workers, and you just have to encourage them to 'be able to do _____, so they can move on to _______' - you fill in the blanks with whatever may apply. I learned that you do have to establish boundaries with these young ones, but also give them room to work and learn at their pace. I have also learned that the hardest part is staying one step ahead of them - I still have yet to master this, but I guarantee you - by the time they all graduate high school, I think I will have it figured out :)

She and I still are just an email away from each other, and she has made it very clear that I can always ask any question that I may have, which is a big blessing to me!

I look forward to sharing next time on my time in the lower elementary classrooms, and hope to not bore you completely!

My primary students - Bug and Buddy Boy :)


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