A Parent’s Musings on the Montessori Way
“But two and a half is still so – little,” I lamented to my husband while we deconstructed our open house evening at the nearby Montessori school. My husband smiled. He reminded me that the principal of the school not only had grown children of her own but also had many years of training and experience in the Montessori system. Despite my initial reservations a few months later my son and I exchanged a tearful good bye (my tears being somewhat suppressed until I ran to the privacy of my car and drove blindly away) as I left him at the door. However, we, as a family, were not prepared for the joy and wonderment at having a Montessori-educated child.
It is all somewhat of an enigma for a parent when he or she is introduced to this new system. As most of us have been educated in the more traditional education system we are familiar with the typical school jargon: desks, blackboards (now whiteboards!), grade levels, assemblies, crafts, homework (oh, horror!) and detention. Now all of a sudden we’re thrown into the mysterious world of new terminology: the pink tower, an ellipse, number rods, and so on. To cause us more trepidation we are not even allowed in the Montessori classroom! We are used to barreling on through the door of the daycare/kindergarten, carrying the child’s bag – possibly, the child too – taking off his shoes and departing with a dramatic good-bye. But not in the Montessori classroom: their way is all so new, so different, so NOT the way we did it!
However, nearly one year and a half into this new experience we find that two words aptly symbolize the Montessori way: independence and calmness. Each child is greeted at the door in the morning. We watched our two and a half year old slowly progress at this important start to the day. Very soon he was able to shake hands, look the teacher in the eyes and respond politely to the salutation. The next stage to the morning is to independently remove one’s jacket and shoes, place them neatly in the appropriately named cubbyhole and put on the required indoor shoes. Our son was often frustrated at the complexity of this task. As he keenly observed the older children and listened to the repeated gentle instructions from the teachers, he succeeded at this important first step towards independence.
Later in the year I observed the classroom at the first parent observation session. So that the presence of another and new adult does not disrupt the flow and ambiance of the classroom we view the children at work via a viewing room. To my absolute wonderment, the children were calmly involved in a variety of activities. Some worked alone. Some worked with others of various ages. Some worked with a teacher. The room appeared devoid of the frenetic, chaotic noise from little people. It wasn’t silent (as complete silence does not always indicate that learning is taking place) but the positive sounds came from happy, calm children.
Both my husband and I appreciate the input of the Montessori school. We love that our son loves school; we love that he learns to respect adults, his peers and his environment (whether that be others’ property or the natural environment). All these values taught first at home are then being nurtured and reinforced in a calm and peaceful atmosphere. For us the Montessori approach to education provides hope for our precious children who are participating in an often turbulent and unsettling world.
True in every way at PRMA
We cannot express in words how much gratitude and love we have for Pacific Rim Montessori Academy. From the very first meeting at the Kitsilano location, we felt welcome and supported by the caring and authentic teachers, and the dedicated administrator, Meenu. The attitude is that every child can succeed and flourish using their own unique self, and the teachers go to great lengths to really get to know each child and their learning styles and individual personalities. For the first couple of months at school, my eldest daughter was extremely shy and tentative – she did not speak to a soul. I witnessed her grow and blossom over her years at PRMA. By her kindergarten year, which is seen as a real novelty by all the children and a special time of being the ‘leaders’ in the classroom, she had grown so much in her personal confidence and expression, and developed a real curiosity and love for learning. This extended into our home environment as well, where she was keen to contribute to the house, and developed long stretches of focus and concentration for independent imaginative play. Intellectually, I was blown away by the things she had learned and the work she brought home from preschool. She brought maps of the world she had drawn with labeled countries, beautifully handwritten work, work with decimals and adding two number sets of thousands together, little buttons she sewed, and so much more. While we routinely read a lot of books to her at home, she learned to read solely at school, using a phonetic approach and individual instruction. I feel very confident with how academically prepared she is for heading into Grade 1. There is also a lovely sense of community among the parents and caregivers at the school, and it is easy to play and socialize at the little park on the grounds before or after school. Maria Montessori said “The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences.” True in every way at PRMA.
From Creeping to Leaving the Kindergarten Year
As April approached during our daughter’s last year before Kindergarten, my husband and I began the same process many Montessori preschool parents engage in every Spring: making the decision about where she would go for Kindergarten. We loved the Montessori preschool, and had really seen our daughter thrive there for the past two years. And we knew the mantra about kids in the program ‘leaping’ in their learning during their third year. On the other hand, when we moved to Redding, we researched potential schools for our kids, and chose our house based upon where we intended them to attend school – a wonderful charter school that really seemed to cater to our daughter’s personality and to specific curricular offerings that were important to me and my husband.
When we thought about our daughter’s progress at Montessori in particular, we discussed how much progress she had already made – we were amazed by her burgeoning math skills, her beginning writing, her ability to select work and focus…we thought perhaps the ‘third year leap’ was something she was already experiencing. She had been so prolific and learned so many new and diverse things, how much more could she grow in the following year?
We decided to go through the lottery process at the charter school and make a decision later, if we were successful in securing her a spot. As it turned out, we were not successful. I was surprised at what a relief that was! We were please that she could continue to hone her skills and talents in her own time, according to when she was ready, both in terms of interest and development. We appreciated that she would be able to develop more ability to concentrate on her work over ever longer periods of time, and that she would learn to be responsible for progressing through her own education – that she would learn that her rewards (learning new information, skills, etc.) would be a direct result of the effort she decided to invest.
Fast forwarding to the beginning of her Kindergarten year at Shady Oaks, my husband and I were blown away at the changes we observed in her. We thought she had been ‘leaping’ in her learning the year before – she hadn’t even begun!! She went from writing her name and the names of a few items around to developing whole sentences, and then stories, in a matter of a couple of months. From reading a handful of words in beginning reader books and signs around town, she suddenly (within a period of a few weeks) moved on to reading whole stories by herself – and within a couple of months, again, she progressed to books several levels above what we have expected from a traditional 1st grader! She’s moved from adding single digits together to delving into large addition, subtraction, and multiplication – we’re not even sure what work she’s doing in the classroom that relates to this (she doesn’t tell us a whole lot about what she does); it just comes up at the dinner table or while we’re baking together. And, being a Kindergartner this year, she is really getting the opportunity to explore her leadership skills. It’s been wonderful to watch her give lessons to the ‘new friends’ in the classroom, or hear about things the younger children are working on that she can sit near and watch, while she does her own work, and help with if they’re struggling with something. A great side-benefit to that, she’s become extraordinarily helpful in the same way with her little brother at home as well.
In November of her Kindergarten year, we received a phone call from the charter school that there was an opening for her for immediate placement. My husband and I struggled with the thought at that point. We were really starting to see our daughter leap at Montessori, and we knew how much we and she both valued her self-direction, independence in learning, and the benefits of the multi-age classroom. Still, we had been invested in the idea of this charter school, and it was difficult to just let go of that. We decided to observe the classroom she would be placed to make the best-informed decision we could.
That morning, we talked to our daughter briefly about the task before us. We wanted to know what her thoughts and opinions about this were and let her know we valued her input, though we were careful to explain that this was a decision that we were ultimately going to be making based on our assessment of the options. She asked what some of the differences would be. We talked about the whole class doing the same work at the same time. We explained that she would be required to stay in her seat, and raise her hand if she wanted to ask a question or needed to get up for a drink or to go to the bathroom. She looked at us like we had sprouted horns.
What if I want to do reading and someone else wants to do writing? Well, that’s not how other classrooms work – you’ll have to read when the class is reading, and write when the class is writing. What if I’m not done reading and it’s time to write? You’ll have to save your place in what you’re reading and come back to it next time, or maybe do it on your own after school. What if I haven’t had the lesson the class is working on yet? Well, everyone gets the same lesson all together at the same time, so when it’s time to work, everyone’s had the lesson for that work. And I can’t get up to go to the bathroom without raising my hand and asking? That’s right – but they’ll let you go, we promise!
The more we talked it over, the more ludicrous it seemed to us also, given the environment that Montessori provides. Still, we went to our observation with open minds. The children seemed happy enough. The teacher was kind and engaging. They were working on a math set while we were there, counting sides of a hexagon, drawing the shape repeatedly in columns on a worksheet, coloring it yellow (the hexagon tanagrams they used were all yellow), and writing six in the next column showing the number of sides for each hexagon they drew. About five minutes after we got there, the teacher stopped that lesson and had the class move to a story rug to work on some reading comprehension. This consisted of her holding up flashcards with common words (cat, hat, it, I, we, can, etc.) for the kids to say in unison three times, then the next card three times, and so on. This lasted another 10 minutes, maybe, before they moved back to their desks for a new lesson.
The teacher had explained to us that the children needed a break from the math exercise, because they really couldn’t concentrate on it for more than about 15 or 20 minutes at a time. This was the beginning of the end for us. We knew from our experience at Montessori, our daughter (and many others children in our classroom) had no problem working on a project for long periods of time, because they chose work they wanted to do and were interested in. They didn’t have to stop working because other students (who weren’t really interested in the work at hand) got restless.
In fact, this classroom’s whole day was scheduled out in 30-minute increments (or less) for various subjects. Then they lost about 4-5 minutes each time they moved from one lesson to the next as they waited for the entire class to simultaneously finish one project, move, and settle in to the next. While this allowed the children to move a little between tasks, it seems strange, having the Montessori experience to relate to, that kids who need to move aren’t allowed until it is time for the whole class to do so. And that kids that might not be ready to finish the task at hand are required to because others are, or the schedule says it’s time.
We made our decision as we walked out the classroom door from our observation that this was simply not an environment that was best for our daughter. She was clearly thriving with the Montessori method, and we didn’t see anything that seemed it would provide her with a greater educational benefit. We were happy to have the opportunity to make this decision ourselves, and know now that it really is the best choice for our family. It means we will be driving out to Middle Creek Montessori twice a day every school day for nearly the next decade, between our two children. (The charter school is less than a mile from our house – an easy walking or biking distance.) Still, the opportunity this affords them is clearly worth it for us.
On a side note, my husband and I come from the polar opposite ends of the public education spectrum: one of us easily excelled in that environment, and the other struggled to make it through. We’re both intelligent, curious individuals who love to read and have taken many opportunities to further our education outside school. But the system we grew up with, and which seems to have gone to further extremes, catered to good test-takers who don’t necessarily “learn” the information as much as memorize it for quick regurgitation on tests, while punishing those who do not test well by grading them on how they take the test, rather than how well they actually know the subject matter. Both of us have seen how the Montessori method would have made a world of difference for our own educations – for one providing a more engaging, less punitive environment that actually promotes learning, and for the other an environment that promotes actual and intentional learning, rather than simple memorization of facts without actually connecting the facts with long-term knowledge that builds upon itself. I relish the opportunity for our children to be in control of their education; to explore and learn because it’s something that they want to know, rather than something they will need to know for a test; to know that their learning, and not some arbitrary test, is both an objective in itself and a door to their future.
PRMA’s three-year cycle
PRMA’s three-year cycle has fully prepped my two sons to enter any school or learning environment in Vancouver. Not only have my children acquired a solid foundation in math, writing/reading, geography and practical skills, they’ve also learned leadership and empathy in the mixed-age classroom. The result: both our sons are now thriving at one of Vancouver’s independent schools. PRMA offers a fantastic, well-designed program and is a welcoming community. We’ve loved our time here!
A short little film
My son is about to enter his second year at Pacific Rim Montessori
My son is about to enter his second year at Pacific Rim Montessori and he and I are both very excited about what school will bring this year after all that his first year taught both of us.
As Nicholas’ teachers know, last summer, when he started his “gradual entry” program I was beside myself – not sure if I was doing the right thing, torn between feelings of confidence in what I had read about Montessori education and fear that I was pushing my 2 1/2 year old son far too fast, far too early. I know now, looking back that Nicholas was completely ready for the experience and it was only me who was not.
Yes – the first week or so was tough for him. Nicholas didn’t want me to leave him in this strange hallway with these new people, and it tore my heart out to do it – just reinforcing my feelings that I was being a bad, pushy mother to do this to a two year old…. But all that changed remarkably quickly and when we returned in September for the actual school year, Nicholas was more than excited to be back at school.
I could tell very quickly that the environment was good for him – but the biggest proof came in November, when my husband and I took Nicholas with us on a business trip to Montreal. He was barely three at the time and, is, to put it mildly an energetic, active boy.
Circumstances evolved and over the time we were in Montreal, we ended up having Nicholas join us for a business dinner and also a lunch meeting with a high powered guest speaker, seated at our table.
What I didn’t expect or know was that somehow, my son had learnt – without my involvement – that there is a time and a place for different behaviours. Throughout the dinner, and the lunch – he was quiet, focused and attentive – speaking more softly than I had ever heard him do before and concentrating on what was set before him (colouring or pictures or such). Yes, when we left the table, he was quick to start racing through the hotel lobby – but when his “work” required him to be quiet or focused, that is exactly what he did. I know I can’t credit myself for bringing that out in him, and I don’t credit him with being extraordinary – I can only believe that his daily experience of the Montessori classroom had given him that self discipline.
But that wasn’t the end of it – the most remarkable part happened on the way home. We took a very late flight, thinking Nick could sleep on the plane. With some winter departure delays, we ended up landing in YVR at about 11:30pm. And yes, Nicholas slept a bit during the flight but that only energized him for the excitement that met all of us on landing. Apparently a few people had reported feeling ill during the flight so now – on the ground at YVR at 11:30pm tired and hungry after a very long flight, and with a 3 hour time difference in our bodies, we were all quarantined…
As you would expect, most of the passengers got a bit restless, but our three year old just wanted to understand what the situation was, and once he did, settled down to a puzzle or two or three. We were stuck on that plane, on the tarmac for almost three hours and I can sincerely say that the person who handled the situation best was Nicholas. He would ask periodically if it was time to get off the plane yet, and when I would explain no, he would consider his options and suggest yet another activity that I could set up for him. This was not the little boy that I had travelled with during the summer – only a few months earlier. He was content, actually happy, to be able to work busily on something – even under the worst of all possible circumstances.
As the year progressed, Nicholas continued to thrive at Pacific Rim. Of course, a big part of what he is happening for Nicholas at schol is academic learning – but that is only part of it. He is learning true life skills and I am so happy that I didn’t give into my “pushy mother” doubts – if I had I would have robbed him of so much learning.