I've been thinking more about what I want to share with my new assistants about Montessori and what to expect in our classroom. So I thought I would expand on that topic some more today. I'm going to describe a typical "day" in our classroom and hopefully that will help some of you who are unfamiliar with Montessori education get a glimpse of what goes on in a prepared Montessori environment.
Before I begin, I'd like to describe my situation. I am the sole trained Montessori teacher in my school. There is one classroom--mine. I am also pretty much the director of the school. I say pretty much because our school is housed in a Catholic church and the church secretary helps me tremendously with all the "paperwork" such as registrations, forms, tuition, newsletters, etc. It is a wonderful blessing to not have to worry about that side of things. That said, I am the decision maker about everything in the classroom. This has pros and cons. It certainly allows me a high degree of autonomy which I enjoy. It can also be isolating in that there are no other Montessori teachers to interact with or bounce ideas off of. Our school is considered fully enrolled when we have 60 students. We are set up as a preschool only so the children typically attend for only two years, then go on to the local public school kindergarten. Another unique feature of our school is that the children usually attend only 2 or 3 sessions per week. That is just what has been traditionally done in this community and at this school. Children are welcome to attend more (my sons both attended daily) sessions, but it rarely happens. As a result we do not ever have the same group of children from day to day. There may be some that were there the day before, but usually half the class is different from the day before. This presents a lot of problems for the teacher (me!) in terms of introducing new work and information to the children as a group. We have 20 students per session with me and one assistant supervising. Our class sessions are three hours long and we have class on M-F mornings and TWTh afternoons. That gives me Monday and Friday afternoons "off."
I begin each session in the whole group. Our parents and students wait in our entryway until the classroom doors open (at 8:15 or 12:15). Usually I open the doors and greet the children as they arrive, then go with the children to our "line" area where we have our "start of the day" routine. My assistant gets a few students off the bus as the rest of us chat until our "bus kids" join us on the line. Once pretty much all the children have arrived, I take attendance. I call each child's name saying, "Good Morning, Joey Walker." They respond by saying, "Good Morning, Miss Laura." After roll call we do a "Good Morning" song. I use a song from one of my Frank Leto CDs. There is an instrumental section in the song that allows me to go all around our circle to shake each child's hand and personally welcome them to class. I like starting our day this way and it provides a nice sense of security to the children since they always know what to expect when they arrive. When I previously taught in a Montessori setting, I allowed children to choose work right away when they arrived, then had a short line time about 30 minutes into the morning. Having done it both ways, I have to say I prefer to start as a group. Each individual teacher would have his or her own preference for this, I'm sure. At our first group time I may do a group presentation of a new work in the classroom. Typically I only do this for new Practical Life work or art projects.........activities that all children should be able to do regardless of their age and skill level. When line time is done, I dismiss the children one at a time to choose their work. At the beginning of the year I dismiss by calling their names. Later in the year we do this silently as I hold up their name cards and they (silently) read their name to be dismissed. It is a very good idea to dismiss children individually instead of whole group. This allows children to think about what they will choose as they are waiting. It allows the teacher to "manipulate" (for lack of a better word) how children are dismissed to encourage children to work independently. I DO like children to do some work together; however, I also want them to develop independent work skills and habits. Sometimes two children may ONLY want to work together and if I dismiss them close together, chances are they will start out on a joint activity and may never work individually during the work period. By dismissing one at the beginning and one later, the first child should already be engaged before their friend is dimissed. This allows them to develop the self-direction and independence that are so important in a Montessori environment.
During the work period (which in our classroom is about 1 1/2 hours) the children freely select activities to work on. Children are expected to take their chosen activity from the shelf and carry it to a table or the floor. If they work on the floor they get a rug to put beneath their work. This gives them a visually defined space on which to put their materials. Additionally, it prevents other children from stepping on, over, or through another child's work. When they have finished their work, they push in their chair, return the work to the shelf and (if needed) roll up their rug and return it to the rug rack. During the first few weeks, my assistants and I will spend a lot of time helping our new students learn these ground rules. A good thing to keep in mind when presenting a new activity to a student is to return it to the shelf yourself (as the adult) when you are finished. This way you are not only modelling how to complete the activity, you are modelling what to do with the materials when finished. This also helps the child remember where in the classroom they found the activity and where to return it.
At the beginning of the school year it is very typical to have new students who do not work with anything at all during the entire work period. This can last for the first few days or even the first several weeks of school. For adults who are not used to the Montessori philosophy and environment this can be worrisome and even alarming. It just doesn't seem right if the child is coming to school each day and doing "nothing." In this situation it is really important to remember to believe in the child and in their ability to know when is the right time for THEM to try something new. For some children it feels very risky to try something they've never done before, especially in a setting with which they are unfamiliar and with unfamiliar children and adults. Don't forget that they are learning SO MUCH just by watching other children. They are absorbing EVERYTHING even when they are not interacting with the materials. They are figuring out what materials look most interesting (or least threatening), they are learning by watching the teachers give lessons to other students, they are discovering that this is a safe environment in which to explore and learn. And someday soon.........they will be ready to dive in with the rest. Don't worry...........it WILL happen. I have had students choose to watch for up to 6 weeks. And truthfully, it is hard to watch because as the teacher I so want to see them growing and learning. How sweet and amazing it is when that moment arrives and they decide it's time to get started and join in. In the meantime, all you can do as a teacher is continue to invite them to try activities, respectfully accept their refusal, and surreptitiously observe them as they survey the new landscape.
Another important point about the adult's role in the Montessori classroom is to try not to get "stuck" with one child for a long period of time. Ideally, throughout the work period each adult will interact with a variety of children instead of spending large chunks of time with only a few children. Remember that the teacher's job is to facilitate learning, not to directly teach (other than when giving a lesson or presentation on new work). The goal of a Montessori education is to empower children to be self-directed and independent in their learning. In order to accomplish this it is imperative that the focus be on putting children in touch with the materials and allowing them to learn through manipulating and handling those materials. With that said, there will be times where an adult WILL need to sit with a child for a while to guide them with their chosen task. Some examples of when it would be a good idea to help include: assisting children who are using scissors for the first time as they often need help to achieve the correct grasp, assisting a new student in rolling up a rug and/or putting their work back on the shelf, helping a child select appropriate work from the shelf, and, of course, presenting or giving a lesson to a child. It would not be appropriate or helpful to the classroom environment, however, if a teacher sat reading a story to a group of children (that is done with the whole group at a time outside the work period) or held a child on his or her lap during the work period. Certainly it is important to provide comfort to a child who is missing their parent or whose feelings may have been hurt by another student. Equally important is helping to empower that child to move forward and realize that they can accomplish an inviting task of their choosing. Doing so often makes the sad feelings disappear.
I am enjoying writing these posts very much. As I approach the beginning of a new school year, it is really helping me to think through everything that I love and value about Montessori education. I hope this posts makes sense. I've been writing it for about 2 hours with MANY interruptions and long breaks in the middle of writing to do a variety of things around the house. If you have any insight to add, please leave a comment. I LOVE to hear from you!