Last weekend I took the opportunity to attend a very enlightening event offered to parents by Sweet Pea's Montessori school, and I'm so glad I went. Apparently a number of Montessori schools around the country are starting to offer this event (that's the only word I can think of to describe it; it's not a class or a seminar) as a way to teach parents more about the way their children are learning in these schools.
The Journey (at least the one offered at our school) is based on a three-part lesson wherein the student is shown whatever it is they'll learn about, told what it is/how it works/etc. and then the student speaks about what s/he has learned.
Our Journey began last Friday night after dinner. We parents who had signed up went to the school and spent most of our 2 hours there silently observing each level of classroom: Toddler (ages 18mos - 3yrs), Primary (ages 3-5yrs), Lower Elementary (ages 6-8yrs), Upper Elementary (ages 9-11) and Middle School (ages 12-14). We were encouraged to get down to what would be eye level for the ages of children who attend school in each room and we were not allowed to touch anything.
At this point I should probably give a quick primer on some ways that Montessori is different than what most of us grew up with in regular schools. Each class level, as you no doubt noted above, includes children of three different ages. Maria Montessori's belief (in *very* short) was that self-directed learning allows children to really internalize what they're interested in because they can choose it themselves and be given time to focus on their interests. Instead of rows of desks, identical learning materials handed out at the teacher's discretion and the students all doing the same thing at the same time, the classrooms here are divided into sections by subject (language, math, art, practical life, etc.), each section containing a number of different "works" pertaining to that subject. The sections of the classrooms are partitioned off by low shelves which contain the works mentioned above, and tables and chairs are here and there around the room. In each room there is also a large rug are where the children can take works to explore/do them. During the childrens' work time they move around the room at will and do whatever works interest them. They can also do them alone or in groups, whichever way the children choose.
The reason for putting different ages together in the same classroom is that children can sometimes be each other's best teachers. Also, if a child who is the oldest in his/her family comes into a class at the youngest age, s/he gets a taste of what it's like to be taught by an older child - something s/he never experiences at home. The same is true for middle and youngest children: As they move through three years in the same classroom, they get to experience learning in different age positions than they're used to occupying at home.
I have seen the inside of Sweet Pea's Primary classroom many times since this is her second year at the school and we have had a number of potlucks in there (on normal school days, though, parents do not enter the room; we drop our kids at the door and that's it - so I always jokingly call Sweet Pea's classroom the "inner sanctum") and I had been in one Toddler room when Sweet Pea's after-school Yoga class met there a couple times last year. But I had never looked very closely at the Toddler room or seen any of the classrooms for the older children, so being able to explore the classrooms without children in them was very interesting. I came home and told Slipshod, "now I feel bad that The Bug isn't in the Toddler program. She would have SO MUCH FUN in there!"
On Saturday the other attending parents and I returned at 8:30am and spent half the day going back through the classrooms, but this time we could talk and touch the works, work together if we wanted, as the children might, and even get a lesson from a teacher if we wished. We were encouraged again to see the classrooms and materials as the children who use the classrooms do, which was pretty funny sometimes in the Toddler and Primary classrooms.
While all the classrooms were exciting to me I had the most interest in seeing and experiencing the Lower Elementary classroom, since that's the level Sweet Pea will be moving up to next year. The first night when we were only observing I came away with the impression that Sweet Pea might actually be scared when school first starts in August, since the space and some of the materials are so different than what she has had in the Primary room last year and this year. However, after doing works in the rooms (the Lower Elementary class area we visited had two adjoining rooms with no door, just an open doorway, between them) I became so excited for her.
There are so many new things there for her to explore, and much of what she will learn will really appeal to her sense of wonder and scientific curiosity. She will be *thrilled* if the room she moves to has a big space poster on the wall. There are books all about space and other wonderful things in the Science area. There is a chore chart and each week each child is responsible for a specific job. Starting in Lower Elementary the children have academic assignments to accomplish each week, and each child makes out her/his own schedule (which they will obviously have help with when they first start) for how s/he will accomplish those tasks in the time given. Sweet Pea's reading ability really does seem to improve each and every day, but I can see how as it continues to improve over the next three years she will be able to learn more and more on her own in the classrooms. And I can totally see how the materials in the Lower Elementary rooms will keep her raptly learning for three years.
The Upper Elementary area has three rooms joined by windowed walls as well as open doorways. These learning spaces, and the materials available to the students, really drew us parents in and I was one of the many people heard afterward saying, "if I had been allowed to learn like this growing up, there is no doubt in my mind that I could have learned math!" They have actual physical objects they can use to learn math. Fractions of circles that you can touch and put together and move around. Sticks and curves that you can stick together with brads to make shapes and angles. Imagine!!
The Middle School has four rooms for the students. We took a short writing lesson in one of them and did a science lab assignment in another.
My experience of The Journey left me wanting to go back to school. From the beginning. I thought regular school worked pretty well for me in most subjects; I got mostly good grades and was able to roll with the style in which I was taught (except, as noted, in math). But given this Montessori type of learning environment I think I could have come out ready to rule the world (with love and compassion and room for others' differing views, even)!
While I do think that Sweet Pea will have a little (hopefully only a little) trouble making the transition to a new classroom, level, and time schedule (she'll be going to school all day for the first time; she's only doing 1/2 day kindergarten this year in the Primary level) next year, I think that once she settles in she will have a fantastic time exploring all the new learning materials available to her.
As for The Bug... What started as a joke between Sweet Pea's current teacher and me ("Since Sweet Pea is leaving me next year," she said, "you're going to need to give me The Bug in my class.") went from being a laughing matter to a thought process and then to a decision to enroll The Bug in the Primary program next year. That was before I took The Journey. Now? Well, yesterday after we dropped Sweet Pea off at her classroom, The Bug and I observed a Toddler class (that's where the parent sits quietly in a chair by the door while the child gets to check out anything and everything in the room for 20 minutes or so). And she'll be starting in that class 2 days per week (for 2 hours) as soon as I get the paperwork filled out. :o)
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