Sunday, April 10, 2011

Montessori Schools with the Upper Grades

I have never taught for more than a week in a Montessori school - that is my disclaimer. I have subbed in a Montessori charter school for a total of about 3 weeks. Since I am mainly interested in the older elementary students, my experience with Montessori has only been with the students who would have been classified as being in 5th and 6th grades and in 7th and 8th grades.

I went into the Montessori school for the first time with curiosity, but wariness. I had looked into enrolling my own children in a different Montessori school many years before this experience and had decided against it. That Montessori school would NOT allow children to do imaginative play and my daughters were especially enamored of imaginative play at the time. I am not sure how many times my older daughter pretended to lose her shoe, as Cinderella did, and gleefully shouted, "Oh, I almost forgot!" as she pretended to hear the clock chime midnight. [Or the permutation of that event, where instead of losing her shoe, she lost her towel after her bath...her ball gown gone.] I just couldn't imagine barring her from imaginative play. So we pursued other alternatives. But my impression of Montessori schools from that school search and from my readings when I was pursuing my education degrees led me to believe that the Montessori method could be rather restrictive - proscribing some types of creativity and prescribing fixed interactions with materials.

But still, I was curious, so I accepted a subbing job at the school. I was impressed with several things, even as the school began. There were two classrooms next to each other with full time teachers and nearly full teacher aides. The classrooms were arranged with a meeting area, usually a couch and several comfortable chairs, a window seat bench, carpeting, and enough space for the 24 students in the class. Outside of the meeting area were various sized wooden tables, some of which could accommodate only two students, some designed for 4, and some that were pushed together for a larger sized table that up to even 12 students could sit at. The walls were lined with books and materials. Coats and boots were left in the hall. Pencils and markers were common property, as were paper, tissues, and other supplies. Each student had two large three-ring binders. One seemed to be for current work and the other kept as a portfolio.

The day there began with a message to the students on the white board easel, a math problem, and a list of things for the students to start working on - typically beginning with making a list of things that they planned to accomplish for the day. The teacher discussed the day's plan for each student and signed each one as the day began. Students conversed a bit and then gradually started on their work.

The typical pattern of the day was to work all morning, with an interruption some time during the morning for a math class, clean up and meet to discuss things just before lunch. Recess and then lunch, followed by either an additional work time or a group activity time. This meant large blocks of time where the student could choose what to work on, with various constraints.

One of the things that still rather discomfits me is the word "choice" as it was used in that school. In the classrooms that I was in, the curriculum was broken into 3 week blocks, where certain activities in each of the disciplines were to be accomplished. The different activities that were required to be done were called "choices", presumably because the student could choose which one to do on which day and at which time, but, in essence, most of them were not really choices, as I think about them. The task was prescribed, e.g., read this and figure out a solution to the problem presented or learn these vocabulary words. Sometimes there were optional ways to demonstrate the accomplishment of a task, but usually, there was very limited amount of what I would call choice, i.e., a student could NOT choose to not do a particular task that s/he didn't like.

So, what do I think? I liked it much better than I expected to. The environment was respectful of both students' and teachers' needs. There was a snack area, where students could get a mid-morning snack whenever they wanted (only 2 people in the snack area at a time). There was a chart by the door to indicate when students had left the room for work, the rest room, or a physical activity (also one of the prescribed list of activities on the list). The aide from one classroom or the other would accompany the students to the gym or outside, depending on the physical activity on the list and how many students wanted to do the activity at the time. The classroom was busy and productive.

The negatives - I saw little differentiation of the activities, with the exception of math. And two students seemed to be floundering a bit. I suppose it is actually good that I only saw two students really floundering, but it is interesting to me to ponder why they were floundering. One student who seemed to have difficulty seemed to be both lazy and unsure of himself. He always worked with a friend and usually the friend was doing the lion's share of the work. If there was a way to accomplish the task with minimal effort and minimal quality, that was the way he did it. He avoided anything that was difficult or required significant effort. He was way behind in finishing most of his work. When the regular teacher and I discussed him, it was clear that this was a recurrent pattern. He wasn't unable, just unwilling.

Another student had difficulty for entirely different reasons: many of the tasks were simply too complex or too difficult for her. She required a lot more support in just about everything than any of the other students. This, even though it was done tactfully, seemed to set her apart.

And there were still conflicts between and among the students. Although the behavior in the classroom was, in general, excellent, there was still some emotional bullying, necessitating some teacher intervention.

The teachers in the school made some tough choices. One was to do without "specials" teachers for music, PE, and library, which are standard in the rest of the school district, in favor of aides for each classroom.

I would be interested in trying this out for a longer time. I would like to see if it actually does facilitate accommodating students at their own levels, and would thus be a model for inclusive gifted education or even inclusion of special ed students. From what I could see, there were only very mild learning difficulties with the one student. There were two very advanced math students in one of the classrooms, so I do know that mathematical prowess was accommodated. I could not see evidence of any other advanced provisions, but I freely admit that this might have been less visible with reading/writing, and to some extent social studies and science.

An aside: with no formal music classes, that subject may have been considered short changed, but the upper grades did put on a musical every year and at least one student, who was an outstanding singer, chose to attend this school and was extremely supportive of it, even though he had to go outside of school to get his music instruction.

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