Freshly sharpened pencils. Scissors swishing through construction paper. Waxy crayons. These are the sensations of imagination. Promise. Eagerness. Remember simmering with excitement for fossil searches, water tables, and fairy tales? Remember bursting at the seams for Curious George, scavenger hunts, and ancient Egypt? These were the moments we fell in love with academia, and now, as my oldest child prepares to enter kindergarten, I feel so grateful for the wonder in her eyes, the spark of untapped potential, due in large part to the Montessori preschool she has attended these last two years. Here are five elements of Montessori in which every classroom would flourish.
Learning is Personal
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” George Bernard Shaw reminds us that the search for enlightenment is not about discovering what makes us tick, it’s about becoming who we want to be. In the classroom, the essence of personalized learning is crafting the path of the individual student in such a way that her needs and interests meet her just where she is. Designing a classroom that presents this kind of diversity can be challenging, but Montessori does it so well by providing a wide variety of materials in accessible spots throughout the classroom, inviting students to explore. In my daughter’s classroom, she approaches each day by choosing which “works” she’d like to pursue, selecting familiar materials, or requesting a lesson about new tasks that pique her interest. The classroom is her oyster, offering pearls of intellectual adventure that are presented by her teachers based on students’ interests, aptitudes, and challenges. Whether she’s painting a map of South America, identifying verbs in a story she’s read, or classifying the parts of a bird, the student is the architect of her learning.
Language as a Tool
“We teach children to begin with their own words before they learn to read the words of others.” At parent night, I ruminated on this comment from Amy Valela, my daughter’s teacher at Peaceful Child Montessori Academy. She explained that instead of beginning with the alphabet as a way to read, students first learn the letters they will write. Tracing the outline of a letter in sandpaper, training her fingers to form the shape of the letters that will tell her stories, my daughter envisions words as her own, as a way to communicate the ideas burning through her, ready to pour onto the page. Reading comes later. First, she writes, and learns to bend the shape of the letters into a personal narrative. The words are not just her own…she owns the words. Language is not something to learn, but something to use.
Curiosity is King
I don’t hear the word “curriculum” in the Montessori classroom. The focus is not so centralized. Instead, it is a living, dynamic environment that builds low shelves & open containers into beautiful, child-centered stations accessible to the curious mind. Students approach the materials they want to use, selecting and directing their education based entirely on their interests. It’s the re-envisioning of Oliver Twist…every child asking, “Please, sir, can I have some more?”, yet hearing only ‘yes’. As our home collection of giant, painted maps of the world’s continents continues to grow, I smile. Right now, geography & geometry are favorites; tomorrow, who knows? But regardless, she is able to follow her curiosity wherever it takes her- something we can all bring to our students.
The World’s Classroom
Candles, warm hearth. The table is set with fine linens, adorned with personal place cards, as we are served the first course: a charcuterie board spread atop a wooden platter sanded and oiled by my daughter. This is the French Culinary experience, a four-week evening class in the art of French cooking. Learning to cook is only one part of this class; the real lessons are about patience, measuring, and pride in what takes time. My daughter finds this same attention to culture and fine art in her monthly classes at The Petite Palette, an art studio. A show at the Sandwich Opera House. Visits to Willowcrest Nursing Home. My little girl and her comrades may only be three to five years old, but they enjoy the finer elements of the world just as adults have liberty to do. The world is their learning space.
Children are People Too
“Be careful.” “You’re too little.” “Wait until you’re older.” We share these concerns with our little ones all the time. It’s only natural to worry about their safety, to not want them to grow up too fast. But Montessori has taught me that my daughter craves the chance to demonstrate her maturing skills. Pouring a drink from a large, glass water jug. Carrying ceramic plates. Cutting up an apple for a mid-day snack. These tasks are a source of great pride for my daughter, an opportunity to contribute to the practical elements of life she watches her parents master every day. These are the signs of independence and the ones we should foster in every student.
As a parent, I may never be fully ready for that first day of kindergarten, but thanks to the lessons of her imaginative, innovative preschool experience, I know my daughter is. As a teacher, I may never be able to fully transform my classroom into a Montessori-like oasis, but I know my students are eager for an active, personal, curiosity-inspired learning space. Sometimes it feels like the barriers are greater than our resources, but I have seen incredible strength, resolve, and creativity in the teachers I know. We have the power to make the world our students’ oyster.