With Parent/Teacher conferences upon us, we have asked that parents do their best to come in for at least a 30-minute observation prior to their conference. This allows the parents to have some common ground to propel the conversations during the 20-minute meeting with the Head Teacher. We also send home a parent questionnaire before the conference to get a clear idea of what their goals and concerns are for their child. These two in combination allow for a specific, clear, goal-oriented conference. Following many of the observations and follow-ups, we felt it would be helpful to delve into the beauty behind the 3-year progression within the Montessori classroom.
Each year in the Montessori preprimary classroom has it’s own beauty. The first year might be termed the Novice year, the second the Apprentice year and the third the Leadership year. I will go into more detail on each year, as we want to be sure to communicate the progression that takes place within the child’s brain as the environment unfolds similarly each year they are at Montessori.
The first year or Novice year, is one of setting a foundation of social-emotional well-being. Once a child feels comfortable and loved, she is able to move freely through the environment in still a very confident yet egocentric state as a 2 ½ or 3 year old. The young student is learning the ground rules of the classroom; walking feet, arrival and dismissal routines, washing hands, bathroom use, mastering transitions, and the work-cycle which consists of knowing where the works are located, using rugs or mats, carrying with two hands, completing the work, making the work ready for the next friend, pushing in her chair, returning the work to its proper place, and returning the mat or rug. With consistency of routine and being in the environment with other children who have been in the class for 1 or 2 additional years, these skills become second-nature lending itself to an ordered child and a structured classroom. Each work in each area of the classroom has a degree of control of error built in and each work requires varying degrees of focus, concentration, coordination, and independence. The works are put out in a progression, left to right, top to bottom, becoming increasingly more difficult, each being presented as the year unfolds one at a time, day after day. Some in the Math area, some in the Language, the Practical Life, the Sensorial, the Cultural, the Science area and so on, each building upon the previous. The children are not asked to use the works presented on any given day. They are simply presented by modeling the intended use of the work and placed in the prepared environment for the child to discover on their own at their own pace.
The first year, many children observe heavily and spend much of their time in the Practical Life area building skills that will aid them in the successive areas of the classroom. As they choose and use the work, many times they will be testing out the material, using their senses, namely touch, sight, sound and maybe not the most desirable for a classroom, taste to get a clear idea of what it is and how it can be used. The child learns through the use of her hands. It is the tool of the mind, says Maria Montessori. The first year is the child’s year to experiment and observe.
The second year in a Montessori classroom is spent building upon the previous year’s foundation. It is a very exciting year as growth is witnessed daily as the teachers guide and observe. The second year child is comfortable within the environment, knows her teachers, is familiar with the routine and layout of the classroom and will remember some of the works as they are presented throughout the year. What is so unique about this year is that although a child may have used a work the first year, she now sees it differently, through new eyes. Eyes of a 3 ½ or 4 year old. For instance, a spooning work as a first-year student was intriguing simply because they were using a spoon and it was small and shiny and the beans she was spooning were shiny and smooth. As a second year student, she is making additional connections with the very same work; she now knows the spoon is silver, the beans are black and has mastered the use of the spoon back and forth effectively carrying the beans from one bowl to the next and successfully masters, completes and returns the work for the next friend to use. This Apprentice student is a help to the new friends in the room because they move confidently and successfully through the environment, working happily alongside their peers.
The third year is magical. This is the Leadership year and must not be overlooked but should have special attention brought to it because the child blossoms this year. Up to this point the child has created synapses in the brain,pathways have been carved as she has worked with the materials now for two years, growing through sensitive period after sensitive period, being attentively observed and guided by the Head teacher through lessons and working alone within the environment and has become social, confident, independent and fiercely concentrated. Besides reinforcing their academic knowledge, this year builds further the child’s self-confidence. This is the year that she, now 4 ½ or 5, will guide the younger students confidently, unprompted and begins to lead and direct the friends within the classroom that need re-direction, befriending, assistance with work, and reminders to maintain the atmosphere, peace, structure and order she is now accustomed to. She is a protector of the classroom or “Children’s House.” We look for what Maria Montessori called “normalization,” or the point in which children are allowed freedom within an environment suited to their specific needs and then blossom. This process is unique and will happen with each class as a whole usually about halfway or a little more than halfway through the school year and happens during the third year for children in Montessori often sooner.
When you are beginning to approach the time during the second year of your child’s academic school year, whether or not you will continue for the third year, I would like to offer some suggestions in assisting your family in the decision making process. I will be referencing Aline D. Wolf’s pamphlet entitled, “Montessori or Traditional Kindergarten A Parent’s Decision for the Five Year-Old.” She suggests a series of steps to take in making this decision.
1) Begin by observing your four year-olds current classroom.
Is she comfortable and happy?
How does she interact with other children?
Does she choose her own activities?
How long can she concentrate?
What math exercises can she do?
What reading or language activities has she begun?
2) Next, visit the kindergarten that you are considering for your child.
Do the children enjoy learning?
How long do they concentrate?
What math and reading exercises are available as the next step to what your child is doing now?
What art, music, and nature activities are in the class?
Are there opportunities for independent work and for leadership?
3) Next, revisit the Montessori school. This time focusing on the classroom as a whole and at what the five year-olds are doing compared to what you observed in the traditional school.
What are they doing in math and reading?
Are they leaders?
Are they self-confident?
Is the classroom a happy place for learning?
What music, nature and creative activities are in progress?
4) Lastly, give careful thought and weigh the benefits and advantages of each program. Transportation responsibilities and relief from tuition are some of the most apparent, but I challenge you to look deeper into the more subtle benefits and analyze the reasons why substantial long term benefits may be more educationally sound.
As the parent, you have the maturity and wisdom to make a sound decision together with your spouse, as to which school will offer the best opportunities for your five year-old. Please try not to feel pressured by neighbors, in-laws or particularly by your own child. You best understand the needs of your child as the parent.