When our son and daughter began in Montessori at age 18 months and 3 and a half, we were just looking for a really good place for them to be while my husband and I were at work. After a series of disappointing in-home caregivers and “preschools,” we were nervous but did not know what we wanted or even if it existed. We stumbled onto Montessori. Everyone has heard the name, but no-one that we knew had any experience with it.
Our first impression? The toddler class was brilliant! We never saw anything like it. That one class alone sold us on Montessori, compared to the center that we had just left, which we could only describe as little and loud. The Children’s House was lovely, but we were somewhat hesitant to have our shy little girl sink or swim in a class of almost 30 children age 3, 4, and 5 The older children were writing in cursive, adding large numbers, and moving, always moving freely around the classroom. But, being impressed with the toddler class, and needing to solve our childcare problem, we said “I do.”
The next years were wonderful. We saw both children grow in ways that we never imagined. Our younger child graduated from the toddler class and moved up to one of the children’s houses without a hiccup. Our daughter transformed before our eyes over that first year from a shy child who held back to someone who was confident and a leader of the classroom. One visit to the local public school convinced us to keep her in Montessori, at least for another year.
So there we were, in January of her kindergarten year, and once again we had to make a decision.
Neither my husband nor I are educators, and we’ve really never been ones to worry that much. We both went on to professional schools and have good jobs. I would say we are well-educated, and we never really stress that much about our children’s education. Our home life is filled with lively conversation, interesting trips to museums and galleries, and we read a lot with the children. We just assumed all along that our children would do fine in school and would go on and succeed in college. Perhaps that’s one of the things that made it easier for us to fall into the Montessori way of thinking. So many of our friends seem to agonize over everything that’s going on in their children’s education. We would just much rather ‘be’ with our children and enjoy our time together and read a good book.
So we ended up making the decision to stay and, in the process, we realized that we were committing our family to devote a hefty sum every year to private school tuition, but for us, it’s become a priority. I can’t tell you that our decision was terribly well-thought-out; it was more based on gut instinct. Our children were happy. We had loads of friends in the school community. We had the real sense that our children were part of an extended family. The simple fact that they got up every morning eager to go to school was worth every penny to us.
Looking back, I noticed a few things that were important to us along the way.
The first thing that struck us when our daughter moved on from the children’s house to lower elementary, was the fact that so much of the material with which she began to work in her kindergarten year was carried on into the elementary program. At first, this didn’t seem to be that important, although she often would speak about how much she continued to enjoy the Stamp Game, the Snake Game (what the devil is that, we wondered?), and the Bead Cabinet. We started hearing more and more about not only the names of countries but their flags and capital cities. There was this one day where all our daughter could talk about was the Big Bang and the creation of the universe. Who knew that a six-year-old could get so excited about the question of how the world came to be? Ours did!
Over the next year, we heard all about the Great Lessons. In case you haven’t heard about them yet from your own child, they are essentially five great experiential lessons that are given every year, at least in our child’s class, beginning with How the world came to be, the Timeline of all life on Earth from the first simple microbes to life today, the Story of the coming of human beings and the Needs of People, the Story of how language developed, and the Story of mathematics and how it was developed. Who knew that concepts like these would interest a young child? I certainly never expected it.
Over the years as our daughter grew, and our younger child entered elementary as well, we noticed that there were periods of incredibly rapid growth and excitement, and then there be other periods where one or the other would seem to go into a holding pattern. The teachers explained to us that this is fairly common. On the whole, what we found was that both children learned such a wide variety of things that we never anticipated.
There is no homework, there were no grades (but there were very detailed weekly reports from Montessori Compass, and extensive narrative reports twice a year), and there is really no standardized testing week as all of our friends’ children seem to experience in the local schools.
We did wonder whether our children were learning what they needed to know. There was no set of textbooks, workbooks, or anything external to the school experience that we could relate to.
Mostly, what convinced us were visits to family members and friends whose children attended very different kinds of schools. The difference between our children and theirs was night and day. Many of these other children were ill-behaved, mean spirited, silly, and self-absorbed in comparison with what we saw in our own kids. Our children always had a wide range of interests of their own choosing, while many families outside of our school community had children whose lives were highly structured and scheduled by their parents from the end of the school day to bedtime, and throughout the weekend with sports, music lessons, tutoring sessions, and hours and hours of homework that seemed to us to look a lot like busywork.
Along the way, I came across the work of another Montessori parent, Trevor Eissler. In case you’ve never come across his book, Montessori Madness, or heard him on YouTube, he talks about a friend of his whose child left Montessori and transferred to a traditional school. Before long, his friend reenrolled her child in Montessori because she “saw the light going out of my child’s eyes.” Those words truly resonated with my husband and me.
As the years have gone by, other things that we’ve noticed include the fact that our children read voluntarily, and not only when they’re given an assignment. They will typically be working on two or three books at a time, and now that my daughter is in middle school, she is often working on five or more books at a time. More importantly to me, she really seems to understand what she reads. She has questions, she has opinions, and she can speak intelligently on a wide range of topics including current events and everyday ethics.
Another thing that I noticed early on was the school gave her children work plans as they got older. They were basically simple open-ended ways that the children could think about what they ought to do during the day, and where they could record what they actually accomplished.
Over the years we notice that our children began to keep little notebooks in which they reflected on not only what did they do each day, but what they found interesting and what they found boring.
When I ask my child what she’s doing these days, I actually get an answer. A word of caution, by the way. When they were younger, and I asked those same questions, the typical answer was “I don’t know.”
At first, work plans would be for a single day, and from what the teachers told me, they began by asking my daughter, and then later my son, what would you like to do first? They would write it down and then my child would come to them and let them know that she had completed it. One-day-at-a-time work-plans evolved into a weeklong wor- plan.
In recent years I’ve come across any number of articles about executive function skills, and why their development is so important in young children. I’m no expert, but my understanding is that this has to do with the ability to stay focused voluntarily, to organize one’s own time, and to follow through and complete work without external rewards and punishments. To me, another word for this is being mature and responsible. It seems to be a characteristic of both my children and their friends, and from what I’ve read, it’s very common among Montessori children everywhere.
I have to say that I’ve taken a fair amount of criticism and awkward questions over the years from family members and colleagues. In our family, and in my professional circle, almost everyone attended work and sends their children to highly competitive public or private schools. The idea that I husband and I chose Montessori strikes many of them as illogical. I’ve even been asked if I’m not worried about my children eventually being excepted into a good college.
When I look at my children, that’s the last thing that I worry about. These kids are going to be fine.
They are culturally literate and can talk about a wide range of subjects and have all sorts of interests. They love their teachers. They don’t get into trouble. They have loads of great friends. We don’t have to worry about bullying, and when there is a spat among friends, which is inevitable in any school, the teachers turn it into a peace lesson.
Again, who knew that conflict among a bunch of young children could be turned into a lesson in ethics in everyday practical psychology? It certainly has been our experience, and it works.
And one last memory that comes to mind. I remember sometime during my daughter’s first year in the children’s house coming to a student demonstration night.
Student demonstration nights are an evening, held two times a year at our children’s school, where the children bring us, their parents, and they become our teachers. Being down on the floor in a young child’s classroom, getting a lesson from your three-year-old, is quite revealing. As the years went by, and this tradition continued, I became more and more amazed at the work my daughter, and later my son as he moved up, would share with us.
It took a long time for us to make sense of the Montessori materials. Gradually, we became used to what the children were talking about when they would mention the pink tower, metal insets, the Golden Bead’s, the Snake Game, the Grammar Symbol work, the Multiplication Checkerboard, the Polynomial work, the timelines, and all the other exercises you can fine for language, mathematics, geometry, geography, history, or science, history, and so much more.
Even art and music continue to surprises us. Our children’s school is not large, but the children develop an awareness of famous artists and famous artwork, as well as famous musical compositions, that I never had at that age. The head of our children’s school sometimes wears a tie that is made up of a print of Monet’s water lilies. Every time I’m with my daughter and she sees him, she points it out and reminds me that that is a Monet. Or, sitting around the house with the radio going softly in the background, she’ll stop and say that’s Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov.
So here it is, after all these years we are still a Montessori family. Every year, we check back in with each other to ask is this still the right choice. We ask ourselves and we ask her children. So far, we’ve had no regrets. We only wish everyone could have the opportunities that our children have had over the years.