Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Montessori Morning

While many preschools and elementary schools require a minimum number of parent volunteer hours, Madelyn's Montessori school is quite the opposite. Parents are not even allowed to volunteer in the classroom; maintaining the learning environment cultivated by Dr. Maria Montessori being the ultimate goal. We are, however, encouraged to sign up for classroom observation appointments beginning the fourth week of the school year. I have one good friend whose decision to send her daughter to a different preschool was influenced in part by the idea that she would not be able to visit the classroom to see how her child was managing in those early weeks. I can certainly relate to that uneasiness, but I also believe that protecting the students' environment while it is still being created is a worthwhile endeavor.

It brings me great joy to observe Madelyn in her world at school. Parents are offered a clipboard to jot notes/questions and asked to sit in any of three different chairs around the rooms. The students understand that visitors are only watching, and remarkably, they ignore the intrusion to a degree that allows a parent to get a true sense of how the classroom functions in her absence.  What follows is a summary of my 30 minutes in Mr. Tarnowski's Primary classroom this morning.

After placing her own coat on a hanger, Madelyn breezes past me with a hint of a smile, acknowledging that school is to continue as usual. She walks around the circle of students already seated and extends her hand to Mr. Tarnowski, patiently waiting for him to break momentarily from the story he is sharing. He looks her in the eye, shakes her hand, and greets her.

Madelyn sits on a section of the blue line away from other students. I wonder to myself whether she has particular friends by whom she likes to sit. At the end of Mr. Tarnowski's story, music begins, and without a word of instruction, the children stand and begin to sing along and act out the motions of the song. A new song follows, and with one short stanza of introduction, the students begin to sing. Very enthusiastically, I notice, and even Madelyn is singing the words, and following the blue line around in a circle as they mimic riding a pony that is walking, trotting, and then galloping.  Even though the twenty-plus students here today are between 2.5 and 6 years old, and they each choose a different pace for their "pony's" gait, there is no pushing or impatience in the circle.

When the music stops, every child sits down quietly. Still the teacher has issued no commands, but quietly watches or sings and gallops along.  He joins them on the blue line and booms a friendly "Good morning!" to which he receives a boisterous echo from the class. After a reminder about how to breathe as if the lungs are divided into three parts, the children take several long, deep breaths along Mr. Tarnowski--filling the upper, middle, then lower lungs and exhaling in the same fashion. One little girl rises to squirt some hand sanitizer, then returns to her seat. A very young student is kindly guided back to his space by Mrs. Tarnowski. The atmosphere is serene and peaceful. These students behave maturely as a result understanding and respect, not fear.

Yesterday's unfinished work is handed out to a few students. Mr. Tarnowski advises a couple of older girls (probably age 5) to go select an age-appropriate job in either language or math.  He then calls names one by one to join Mrs. Parker in Practical Life for a new lesson. I notice the students filing out are some of the youngest.  He asks Madelyn to bring him the farm animals job, and the remaining students gather around him for a lesson which involves reading the names of the animals. First they same the name of the toy plastic animal as he sets each one on the carpet. Next he shows them a small card with an animal's name written on the front, and they work together to sound out the letters and read the word. Everyone participates, and Mr. Tarnowski corrects by using phrases such as "It's important to look at the first letter in a word. What does "pig" begin with?" And when the children respond with "puh," they look again at the word he is holding and say, "dog!"  He also reviews new sounds like "sh" and "ee" in sheep.

When she is excused to return the farm animal basket to its shelf and find her own work, Madelyn heads straight for the painting easel. She clips a paper to it, puts on her apron, then asks Mrs. Parker to write her name on the paper. "Madelyn" is written in small dashed letters, which Madelyn traces herself with a pencil before creating a bright orange masterpiece. While she paints, I notice Madelyn's cousin Jack working on a job with dried beans and two wooden bowls. Another child is using an eye dropper and blue liquid in a cup. Two students are enjoying a snack: juice they poured and crackers they counted out themselves.  Mrs. Parker returns to help Madelyn hang her painting to dry, then Madelyn washes the easel with a sponge, folds the apron and returns it to a shelf before finding her next job.

I follow Madelyn back into the other room. An older student has asked Mr. Tarnowski to check her work, and Madelyn watches him play a little game asking her to read the words on some cards. As she sees the letters and hears the words, I know reading skills are developing. When that game is finished, Madelyn chooses a job from the shelf and asks her teacher for a lesson. She unrolls a small rug on the floor to designate her work space and they sit together. Another boy has finished his previous task and joins them because he is interested. Mr. Tarnowski and Madelyn begin to lay out the series of small paper clocks for a lesson about time.

There is laughter and chatting, these are normal children. But the environment is orderly and peaceful. Two students work together on a puzzle.  An older child compliments a younger one on his letter-tracing. Mrs. Tarnowski notices that the paper with pre-printed dashed letters is upside down, so she gently turns it and suggests in a friendly tone, "sometimes it works better this direction." The culture cultivates respect. When one student inadvertently walked across another's rug (her designated workspace), Mr. Tarnowski reminded her, "I don't believe it's polite to walk on someone else's rug, but I do believe it's polite to walk around it," and the child returned and walked around the appropriate way.

As much as I value the time I have to work uninterrupted while Madelyn is at school, the few times that I have scheduled an observation I have felt a desire to just stay and watch the rest of the morning. I find the interactions between children and with teachers very intriguing, and it is a rare pleasure to watch Madelyn conduct herself freely in a realm that belongs to her, not to me.
Madelyn and Mike Tarnowski ~ Spring 2010

1 comment:

Jaeyde said...

Montessori's ideas about schooling are really interesting. Too bad very few schools use her methods past 2nd grade.


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