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So, what exactly is Montessori Education – three answers short enough to give in an elevator! August 20, 2013

number rolls 1

What exactly is an elevator speech?  It really just means a very short, prepared speech you can use when someone asks you a question such as, “What exactly is Montessori education?”  When someone asks you this question in an elevator, you usually only have about a minute to answer before one of you reaches your floor.  If you don’t have something prepared, a golden opportunity can be lost as you mumble either jargon (sensitive periods, normalization, prepared environment) or an answer involving catch phrases such as ‘whole child’ or ‘hands on.’  Or even worse, “It’s too difficult to explain.”

So, here’s my first attempt at an elevator speech, using an analogy, describing Montessori education in terms of something else.

Person in the elevator notices my name tag for the Montessori conference . . . or someone asks where I work . . . or someone asks where my children went to school . . . or . . . leading to

“So, what exactly is Montessori education?”

“You know how if you only offer your child nutritious food, and no junk food or empty calories, whatever your child chooses to eat will be good for him, and help him grow strong and healthy?  Well, Montessori education is like that, only for the whole child.  Montessori education offers your child so many choices of activities, but whatever he chooses, you can be sure that it will help him develop and reach his full potential, because there are no activities that are just filling in time, no junk activities . . . You might enjoy seeing for yourself a whole class of children, working on their own or with a friend or in a small group, all focused on activities they have chosen for themselves, based on their own interests.  Montessori classrooms are filled with happy, interested, engaged children.  If you call your local Montessori school, I’m sure you could arrange a visit.  Oh, this is my floor.  Bye.”

number roll 2Elevator speech, take two – telling a story.

“So, what exactly is Montessori education?”

“Oh, I love Montessori education so much, I don’t know where to start.  I know, I’ll tell you a story about a real girl in one of our Montessori classes.  She loved counting and numbers, and one day I watched her start writing a number roll.  She took out one bead and wrote the number one on her roll of paper, followed by two beads and the number two, and so on until a few days later she had written to over a hundred, and then she told me that she could write numbers all by herself, without the beads.  She’d figured out how our decimal system works.  Well, she continued writing her number roll off and on all year, writing into the thousands.  Her number roll grew enormous!  It stretched further than the length of a long hallway or across the playground.  This little girl told me, “I could write numbers for ever, couldn’t I?  Numbers never end!”

This pre-kindergarten child, using the Montessori math materials had just built for herself a deep understanding of the concept of infinity, and she was so excited about her discovery.  I think that’s really cool . . . Oh, I could tell you so many stories like that, but I think it would be even better to see for yourself.  Here’s my card . . . contact me, and come visit, please.  Oh, gotta go . . . this is my floor.”

number roll 3Elevator speech, take three – talking about the differences

“So, what makes Montessori so special?” or “Why did you choose a Montessori school for your children?”

“Well, I wanted my children to be able to be who they were meant to be.  At Montessori, they get to make choices for themselves and develop at their own pace.  They are unique individuals at Montessori . . not just part of a herd, being moved en masse from one activity to the next, whether they are ready to move on or not.  They go to the bathroom and eat snack on their own schedule.  The children and teachers enjoy being together in the classroom and talk to one another like real people!  I’d love it if you took a look at our Montessori School and let me know what you think.”

Maybe you won’t be asked the question in an elevator, but another parent might ask you a similar question in the grocery store, or at the swimming pool or at the park.  Please take a moment to think how you might answer.  Only 3% of children attend a Montessori school, and I hope you agree that Montessori Education is too worthwhile for children to be kept a secret!  I encourage you to think of a story you might tell, or perhaps talk about what you noticed on a visit, or what your child has been learning about, and please end with an invitation to take a tour.  I love showing off our wonderful school.

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Why is the Pink Tower pink? September 5, 2012

Why is the pink tower pink?  (And why are the long rods red?)

More good questions!  Perhaps Maria Montessori had some left over pink paint?  Perhaps she noticed that children were attracted to the color pink.  Today, in many schools, the tower is no longer even pink – it’s a natural wood color.  (I imagine that even when the tower is no longer pink, a teacher might still use the name ‘pink tower’ just out of habit!)

I believe the color was never the point of the pink tower.  What’s important is that each of the ten cubes of the tower is identical in shape, color and texture, and only different in size.  When a child is working with the cubes, there is no doubt that the child is exploring dimension/size.  The pink tower consists of ten cubes varying in three dimensions from 1cm cubed to 10 cm cubed.  The child can focus on grading the cubes according to size, and building the tower in order, starting with the largest cube, and proceeding cube by cube to the smallest cube.

Consider the alternatives offered to many children when they are working with building materials.  Each piece is often a different color and a different shape, and maybe involves numbers, patterns and/or texture.  Building becomes complicated and confusing.  With the pink tower, there is no confusion.  The child can understand the point of the exercise – finding out about size.  This allows the child to focus.

The pink tower is a wonderful tool for teaching vocabulary – small, smaller, smallest, big, bigger, biggest.  This is especially useful for English language learners.  When the teacher points to the smallest cube, and says, “Small”, there is no doubt that the teacher is talking about size.  That’s the only difference between the cubes.

When Montessori teachers talk, they might use expressions like ‘point of interest’ or ‘isolation of point of difficulty’ when discussing materials like the pink tower.  The ‘point of interest’ of the pink tower is size.  The pink tower isolates one feature – size – and makes everything else the same (pink, smooth, cube).  A young child only has to focus on the difficult task of arranging the cubes in order of size to be successful.

Most Montessori materials follow this same design – simple, focused, explicit – to allow for ease of learning.  Therefore the long rods focus on length (and yes, they are often red, but now, just as often, they are plain wood), the broad stair focuses on width, the sound cylinders focus on sound, the color tablets on color, the geometric solids on three dimensional shape, etc.  All of these materials mentioned are part of the sensorial area of the classroom, and aim to help children to make sense of the vast array of external stimuli the child receives all of the time from the world.  The sensorial materials help the child develop a sense of order and a vocabulary with which to describe the world.

 

Each child is a unique individual August 29, 2012

When revisiting the sensorial materials, a four year old likes to combine and make patterns.

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.