Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Montessori Observation

I spent about an hour in Sammy's Montessori classroom this morning.  It was great to see her in action in her new environment, but it was hard to tell if she was acting differently because I was there.  I was hoping that she would go off on her own and do some work without me, but she wanted to show me everything.  She showed me how to do the brown stairs (teaches height and width), the red rods (teaches length), and the moveable alphabet (pre-reading).  We also had a snack together, which was prepared by Sammy and an older classmate.

As always happens when visiting a Montessori classroom, I was struck most by the way the children interacted with each other.  The atmosphere in that classroom was one of benevolence and cooperation, which is exactly the opposite of what we are all taught to expect from children.  Children are supposed to be little "selfish" heathens who need to be tamed.  They are expected to treat others badly until we pound it into them that they must share and be polite.  The children in Sammy's class were not perfect.  There were times when others encroached on Sammy's work, or something was grabbed at, but these were the exceptions.  The teacher had to step in once that I noticed, to remind the children not to touch another's work.  ("Work" is what the Montessori materials are called.) 

I also noticed that most of the children were smiling and friendly to each other, and to me.  One boy asked if I remembered his name, since we had met before.  He beamed when I did, indeed.  (The children addressed each other by name quite often.)  Other children told me how Sammy needed help carrying the biggest blocks, or how they liked to have a snack with her.  Since I did not know how to help Sammy do her work in the proper way, I was instructed by the children not to sit on the rug, but next to it, and that the rods needed to be aligned vertically on the rug, not horizontally.  These instructions were not the bossy behavior you sometimes see with children (including my own) but sincere help and assistance.  I love the Montessori combination of great freedom for the children, but with instruction and expectations for the proper way to use things.  It is not the freedom of subjectivism, but the freedom of trust and respect.

Sammy and I arrived early so I saw how the children filtered in.  The teachers greeted the newcomers, but there was no need for them to get up to tell the children what to do.  The kids just hung up their coats and went right to work.  Some worked independently; others worked in groups.  The teachers gave lessons or read books to small groups that formed organically.  I didn't stay for "circle time" which is when the whole class does some kind of activity together.  I might want to go again in the later part of the morning to observe that.

One final thing I noted was how big and clumsy I felt in that classroom, with all of its child-sized things.  It made me realize concretely how uncomfortable and frustrated children must feel with all of the adult-sized things that surround them.  I don't believe in turning one's home into a full Montessori environment, but it must be such a wonderful relief for the kids to enter that world designed for them each day.


  1. Amy,
    I’ve been enjoying reading your blog for over a year now, and decided to quit lurking!
    I appreciate your insights into the Montessori environment, and have found so much of it to be true for the Montessori school where my son, now kindergarten age, attends. Several years ago I worked in the preschool room of a traditional childcare center, and as part of our continuing education we were sent out to visit other preschools in the area to observe their environment and curriculum. One school was Montessori, which was not familiar with. I was a bit creeped out by how quiet the classroom was, coming from my classroom, where a high volume level and lots of teacher-directed activities were the norm. When I discovered Objectivism and its connection to the Montessori philosophy, so much of what I observed finally made sense to me, and I was overwhelmed with a sense of dismay at the approach my old school had taken to instruction, where the children “learned” through the traditional model of teachers imparting their knowledge as though they were filling up an empty pitcher. I also realized how mistaken my expectations of the children were (as you put it so well), that they were “little ‘selfish’ heathens who need to be tamed”, or who just needed to sit still long enough to listen to what I had to say(!) As I read more about Maria Montessori and her philosophy, and combined it with my understanding of Objectivism, I realized what I had missed as a child and became determined to provide every opportunity for my children to at least begin their education in a Montessori school. I have been amazed at what my son has learned, and also with how well he is able to interact with people of all ages. My husband and I decided to keep him at his school for kindergarten rather than subjecting him to public school, but his school doesn’t offer elementary instruction, and it breaks my heart as I think about what next year will bring when he enters first grade. I am working my way towards being able to work from home so I can homeschool. It’s a bit terrifying, as I am still unlearning some of my old preschool teacher behaviors, but I know I can do better than the public school, even if they are “some of the best in the state”.

  2. Monica, Thanks for the feedback! I wish you the best of luck with homeschooling. It really is scary, isn't it? I think your experience and your thinking on the issue will serve you well, though. I've been thinking a lot lately about those first few grades of homeschooling and I'm moving towards keeping a Montessori-like method for that time. Still, my main guide is The Well Trained Mind, especially for grades 4-9.

    If you do end up homeschooling and working from home, I'd be interested to hear how you manage it. I'm scared to death of losing my own time once I start homeschooling.