Parents ask the best questions. Questions help us examine our practices and beliefs, and then to explain them in plain, non-Montessori jargon, so everyone can understand – or at least that’s what I hope happens.
Recently a parent asked “How do Montessori teachers differentiate the curriculum to meet the needs of children returning for their second or third year?” As a parent, you definitely don’t want to think of your child doing the same thing again, year after year.
In general, our three year olds love practical life (pouring, scooping, cutting, cleaning, dressing frames, food prep) and sensorial activities (associated with learning about size, shape, color, texture, smell, sound, pattern, etc, through the senses). They are working on developing their attention spans, their fine motor control, their independence, and refining their senses. They are learning new words all of the time to describe what they see, hear, feel, smell, taste, and so on.
Four year olds begin to spend more time in the language, math and cultural (history and geography) areas, learning about numbers, sounds and letters, how to read and write, and about the world around them. When four year olds work with the sensorial materials, they are more likely to be combining, matching and making patterns. They may like to work with a friend, too, whereas many of our three year olds still like to work side by side with a friend, rather than on a two person project.
Our five to six year olds often spend their time focused on just one or two challenging and longer activities per work session – making a map of the world, writing words in a journal, counting a long bead chain, working on a booklet of multiplication problems. These children are developing their social skills and their leadership skills. They often like to work in a small group. Ms. Sudha has a ‘journal writing group’, for example. They like to work together and share ideas for writing.
A Montessori teacher is trained to notice the changing interests and abilities of the children as they grow and develop, and to find activities that match and challenge each child. When a child returns for a second year at Montessori, the teacher will check the child’s understanding and memory of previous work. If the child was working on learning to recognize numbers 1 – 10, both in and out of sequence, and to count objects to ten, then the teacher might begin the year with some counting games. If the child still remembers number 1 – 10, the teacher will introduce the teen numbers. If a child was previously working on teen numbers, the teacher will introduce the decimal system with the golden beads, the hundred board and the activities for learning to count by tens to one hundred – ten, twenty, thirty, etc. As most lessons are individual, it is easier for the teacher to find the right amount of challenge for a returning student.
Similarly in language, if a child remembers the letters and sounds of the alphabet from a previous year, the child will begin writing and reading simple three letter words. If a child completed the previous year knowing how to read three and four letter words, the teacher will introduce more challenging reading and writing work – compound words, such as ‘football’ and ‘bedroom’, or sight words, such as ‘their’ and ‘said.’
A child may continue through three years at Montessori with an interest in a certain activity. A child may love puzzles, for example. Knowing this, as the child develops over the years, the teacher will introduce many learning opportunities to this child through puzzles – puzzle maps, to learn the name and shape of the continents, and then countries and states, names of the parts of many animals and plants, the human skeleton, the planets, etc. We have many puzzles in Montessori classes, going from the simple, suitable for a very young child, to the advanced, maybe a hundred pieces or more. With a wide array of materials on the shelves, the teacher can find something that is just right for each child, whether they are brand new, or a child returning for a second, third or even fourth year.
To get back to the question about differentiating the curriculum for a returning student, I am reminded that the teachers differentiate the curriculum for every child, depending on their interests, abilities, and attention span, regardless of whether the child is new or returning. In Montessori, no two children in a class will follow the same path through the materials, because each child in the classroom is recognized and valued as a unique individual.