Montessori Moments

October 4, 2009

Montessori Matters

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Full Montessori @ 1:31 pm

I’m moving to See you there!


October 3, 2009


John is a 4.5 year old boy from a broken home.  His parents are bitterly divorced and he lives with his dad, step-mom, and twin toddlers from the current marriage.  John sleeps over at his mom’s house every other Wednesday and every weekend.

The dad and step-mom are very nice, but very young and very overwhelmed with so many little children.  John came to my class one year ago as a 3.5-year old, because his previous teacher couldn’t handle him.  Through a lot of tough love and positive discipline in the prepared environment, John began to settle down and find joy in the Montessori materials.  This was a long and arduous process, which took most of the year, but I could see genuine progress and maturity around the time we celebrated his fourth birthday towards the end of the school year.

I still struggled to help him find purposeful work, and he refuses to do anything related to sandpaper letters or the moveable alphabet, so he’s at least a year behind where he should be academically.  However, he was happy, understood the limits, and was always eager to help.  He even displayed strong concentration when working with metal insets and constructive triangles, and his coloring work went from dark and aggressive to colorful and well-organized.

At the beginning of this school year, he was still doing relatively well, although there was the expected rowdiness associated with the start of the school year.  A few weeks ago, however, things changed.  John began acting up: he got into physical fights, stopped following the rules, and had a strange nervous energy.  I talked to the director of the school about it, and she let me know that John’s dad and step-mom were expecting a baby.  Because John hadn’t mentioned anything, I let it be for the moment, and returned to the tough love, positive discipline, and Montessori materials that had worked so well in the past.

This time, however, they seemed to have the opposite effect.  John would settle down for a few moments, but soon he was hurting someone, mistreating a material, or being loud and abrasive in the classroom when everyone else was trying to work.  If he was working with a metal inset, he would get up from his chair at least 20 times to go interrupt others, and would react violently if I tried to guide him back to his work.

I called the dad to try to get some insight and asked him if there were any changes at home I should know about.  As is customary with him, he blamed the mom for putting negative ideas about school in John’s mind, and told me that every time John comes home after visiting his mom he is irritable and difficult to handle.  Not once did he mention that they were expecting, so I didn’t bring this up.

A week after the fruitless phone call, we celebrated another child’s birthday, and John mentioned that he would be getting a new brother and sister.  He didn’t seem upset and stated the fact very nonchalantly.  However, a few days later we were having a particularly bad day.  The children were acting up and John was leading the way.  Fed up with his behavior, I did something I have never done before to any child: I told John he was acting like a baby.

What happened next surprised me.  He grinned.  It was the biggest grin I’ve seen on a child in a long time!  He looked pleased as punch with my statement!  That’s when it hit me: he’s regressing.  He knows that his twin half-brothers got all the attention when they were born, and now he’s going to be losing his dad’s attention once again!

I really don’t know how to proceed at this point… I have a conference with John’s dad a week from now, but I don’t know how to bring up his child’s reaction to my statement, let alone the fact that the boy’s behavior is a direct result of the dad’s actions and decisions.  He can’t turn back the pregnancy, but he needs to realize how it is affecting his child.

As for John’s behavior in the classroom, I’m not quite sure what to do.  The more I treat him like a “big boy”, the more he rebels and regresses, because he wants to be the baby.  But treating him like a baby is not going to help him understand the realities of his role in life.  Maria Montessori would say that we are not psychologists, and that the only way we can lead a child to normalization is through helping him find purposeful work that he can repeat with concentration.  But how do I go about that if the child’s energy and focus are so scattered that he can’t even sit on a chair or next to a rug long enough to take a material out of its box?

Next week, it’s going to be all Practical Life, all day long for little John.  He needs a sense of purpose in his life, an anchor of stability and success in the crazy mixed-up world his adults have created for him.  I pray that he’ll find his way through scrubbing walls and washing windows.  Maybe Maria Montessori was right after all… It wouldn’t surprise me.

October 2, 2009

And Just When You Think the Lights Are On but Nobody’s Home…

A few days ago I was reviewing the sandpaper letters with a 4-year old who is interested in NOTHING else in the classroom and can spend the entire three-hour work period sitting in a chair and looking at the ground if I let him.

I pulled out the “p” and asked him to tell me a word that has the “p” sound in it.  He sat quietly for a moment, then looked up and very clearly said:


September 20, 2009

The Relativity of Right and Wrong

Five year-old Stacy and I were working with the geometric cabinet.  As we went through the language lesson involving several shapes, it became clear that she was having a hard time telling the difference between the oval and the ellipse.  Since she can read, I introduced the geometry cabinet classified cards, which consist of the following:

– Cards showing the shapes of the geometric cabinet (the shapes are in blue and the background is in yellow, just like the cabinet)

– Cards where the names of the shapes are written (ellipse, oval, curvilinear triangle, etc.)

– Cards where the definitions of the shapes are written (“an egg-shaped figure with curved lines that narrow at the top” would be the definition of oval)

– Control cards that show each blue shape with its corresponding name and definition on one long yellow card, so the child can check her work when she’s finished

I handed Stacy the card that showed the blue oval, and then invited her to find the label for the shape.  She chose the label that said “ellipse” and placed it next to the oval.  I then invited her to find the corresponding definition, and she chose the one that defined an ellipse.  Without pointing out her mistake, I gave her the card that showed the blue ellipse.  She chose the label and definition for “oval” and placed them next to the card with the elliptical shape.

At this point, she had labeled and defined an oval as an ellipse, and vice-versa.  Hoping the control cards would help her see her mistakes and understand the difference between the shapes, I invited her to check her work.  I pointed to the card that said oval, which she had placed next to the elliptical shape, and asked her to find the matching control card.

After three years in Montessori, Stacy was familiar with the use of control cards, which allow the children to check their work and make corrections without having to depend on an adult to point out mistakes (we call this “control of error”, and it is present in most authentic Montessori materials).  She shuffled through the cards, found the one that corresponded to the oval, and placed it below the cards she had paired.

I saw her eyes shifting several times from her work to the control card and back.  It was clear that, while the name and definition of her cards matched the control card, the shape on the control card (an oval) was different from the shape on her work card (an ellipse).  She repeated the process with the control card for the ellipse, and again looked from one card to the other.

“How’s it going?” I gently inquired.

“Something’s wrong,” she remarked.

“Oh?” I asked, relieved that she had found the mistake in her work.  “What’s the matter?”

Stacy looked up from her cards.  “This card,” she pointed to the oval control card, “is wrong.”

My eyebrows popped up.  “Really?” I asked, intrigued by her perspective.

She continued, unphased.  “Yeah.  If you give me a blue marker, we can change this shape,” she pointed to the oval on the control card, “to look like this.”  She pointed to the ellipse on her work cards.

I gently explained that we couldn’t color on the control cards, because they were designed to help us check our work, and asked her if she wanted to look at the cards again.  She looked back at her work and insisted that the control card was wrong.   Without pressing any further, I suggested that we put away the work because it was almost time to go home.

I didn’t dare tell her that she had made a mistake: that’s not my role as a guide.  I will simply continue to expose her to the two shapes in different situations throughout the school year, until at some point she will have her little “aha” moment.

I marvel at the strength of her convictions; discovering the world in this manner creates much more awareness and self-reliance than depending on others to show us the way, and helps us appreciate the relativity of right and wrong.

August 31, 2009

First Day of School!!!

Filed under: back to school,classroom,montessori education,teaching — The Full Montessori @ 6:09 am
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The school year starts today, and I’m up by 5:00am to make my lesson plan.  I have 22 children this week, including three 2.5-year olds (two more start next week, thank goodness!).  One of my favorite things about Montessori is that the children stay with their teacher for the three-year cycle, so this year I will continue working with 11 of the children I guided last year, plus four new ones and nine that have come to me from other classrooms.  I hope to have time this evening to post about how the first day went… I’m sure there will be lots of “Twinkle, Twinkle” and “Wheels on the Bus” action today.  Sometimes, it’s the only thing that will make the new ones stop crying… *sigh*

August 29, 2009

Five Children, Four Paintbrushes: An experiment in sharing

During school tours for prospective students and their parents, the question I am most often asked is: How do you get the children to share?

It’s an obvious question for parents to ask, considering there’s only one of each material on the shelves and up to 24 children in each classroom.  I wish I could distill what happens in a Montessori classroom down to a quick and easy solution for parents to apply at home, but I doubt that is possible.  Come to think of it, even I don’t really know how children in our classrooms have such an easy time sharing.  They just do…

Consider the case of the four paintbrushes… During summer school, I took five children outside to paint our volcano.  Our group consisted of a girl who just turned 3, another girl of 3.5, a boy of 4, another girl of 4.5, and a boy who recently turned 5.  They had all been students in the Montessori environment for one year, except for the 5-year old, who’d been there for two years.  I took four different paints, four containers, and four paintbrushes.  We set the volcano down on the grass, I put the painting materials on the ground, and I invited them to decorate the volcano.  Each child took a paintbrush, and the 4-year old piped up, “I don’t have a paintbrush!”

“Well,” I replied matter-of-factly, “Then you’re all going to have to share and take turns.”  I waited to see if this particularly energetic and impulsive 4-year old would snatch a paintbrush from the 3-year old’s hand.  However, all he did was look around at his friends to see what they were doing.  Suddenly, I heard the 4.5-year old girl say, “Here, you can use my brush.”

She handed the boy her brush and sat back to watch the others work.  The boy thanked her, and as he did so, the 3-year old girl said to the newly brushless girl, “Use my brush.”  The brush was passed from one girl to the other, and the children kept painting.  Moments later, the 5-year old said, “Could I please have the brown?”  The child who had been using the brown looked up and, without hestitation, handed the brown paint and corresponding brush and took the one that was no longer wanted.  “Could I use the purple, please?” asked the 3.5-year old, and the 4-year old boy immediately put his brush down and handed it over with a smile.  Somebody handed a brush to the 3-year old girl who had voluntarily surrendered her brush, and they continued in this way for at least 10 minutes, until they decided their volcano was ready.

I sat back silently throughout the activity, observing and marveling at their social skills and maturity.  What is it about a Montessori environment that teaches children to behave in this manner?  I doubt that my presence had much to do with it.  I simply pointed out that the situation called for them to share, and after that I stepped back and remained a silent witness to their interactions.   There were no threats or punishments, no rewards or praise.  There was simply an expectation on my part, and an understanding on theirs: If they wanted to participate in the activity, they would have to share.

This phenomenon can be witnessed daily in a Montessori classroom, and it’s one more example of the magic that occurs when the ground rules (limits) are in place, the expectations are set, the adult is willing to release the reins, and the abilities and potentialities of the children are respected and nurtured.

If you have experience in the Montessori classroom, I would love to hear your thoughts.  In your opinion, what are the aspects of the prepared environment that show the child how to share?

August 28, 2009

Nurture Shock

Filed under: classroom,culture,parenting,teaching — The Full Montessori @ 6:30 am
Tags: , , ,

Here’s an insightful interview with the author of “Nurture Shock”, a new book that examines the effects of current mainstream parenting styles on our children’s behaviors.  You can read the transcript or listen online:

August 25, 2009

Up To the Challenge?

A Montessori teacher recently wrote in her blog that, in her experience, children who are given a choice between Montessori materials and materials thought up by the teacher (such as sorting little balls with tongs and counting different colored rocks) would choose the latter over the Montessori materials.

While this is very sad, the phenomenon does not surprise me one bit in this day and age of over-praising.  From the moment children are born into our society, they are praised and rewarded for everything they do.  I have seen three-year old children praised for getting into their car seats, drinking from a child-sized water fountain, and pushing in their chairs. While all this praise is given to supposedly bolster the little ones’ self-esteem and help them figure out right from wrong, it has quite the opposite impact.

Children who are praised become dependent on external rewards, and quickly become hesitant to try something challenging that will not immediately garner them a rather generic “good job” or a gold star from an adult.  Therefore, it’s logical to assume that they wouldn’t be attracted to any activity that might require them to try, fail, and try again.   Additionally, because some Montessori materials require the child to use his own judgment to evaluate whether he has been successful, they will not be attractive to children who depend on adults to evaluate what is “good” and what isn’t.

As if praise weren’t harmful enough to  young children, they are also living in a society built around instant gratification.  From the time they can sit up, children are placed in front of battery-operated toys that light up and make noise following each interaction.  These children rarely get to experience the internal satisfaction that comes from setting a goal, overcoming challenges, reaching the objective, and actually recognizing that the objective has been reached.

So yeah… Transferring cotton balls with tongs from one bowl to another is a heck of a lot less risky than building the trinomial cube.  But which one is more rewarding, in the TRUE sense of the word?

If you think that a three-year old child is too young to have been “broken” by rewards, think again.  I once saw a three-year old outside an IKEA who was refusing to enter the enormous store with her parents.  The mother insisted, and the child replied, “I’ll go into the store if you give me an Oreo.”  The mother turned purple as she tried to swallow an overflowing spoonful of her own bitter medicine.

Parents think they are responsible for doling out rewards, and yet human beings are not born with a need for them… Babies are risk-takers, stopping at nothing to achieve their goals of learning about the world.  I’ve never seen anyone strike their head against the floor so many times as a baby who is learning how to stand.  They hit that floor HARD!  And yet, they try over and over again until they are successful.   Do they stand up any faster if we give them a gold star?  No.  Will they take longer to stand up if we ignore them?  Again, no.  They stand up when they are good and ready, after they have tried many alternatives and have learned what works best.  Where does this internal drive go?  Once it’s lost, can we ever get it back?

If everyone could choose between doing busywork in their office (which, while boring, is a safe bet and gets you a secure paycheck) or undertaking the challenges of starting a business (which, while being very challenging and risky, is also immensely rewarding and educational), which one would most people choose?  Why do you think that is?

Which kind of person do you want your child to be?  It’s all in your hands.

August 22, 2009

Seven Ages of Man

Filed under: culture — The Full Montessori @ 9:04 am

August 21, 2009

The Why of “Why”

Filed under: classroom,montessori education,parenting,teaching — The Full Montessori @ 10:44 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

A half-dozen three to six-year old children are seated on the floor with the guide.  They have a conversation that goes something like this…

Guide: Do we walk in the classroom, or do we run?

Chorus of children: Waaaaaaalk!

Guide: I would like a volunteer to show us how we walk in the classroom.

(Children eagerly raise their hands).

Guide: Johnny, could you please walk to the pink tower, turn around, and come back to the group?

(Johnny stands up quietly, voluntarily puts his hands behind his back, and using very controlled heel-toe motions walks noiselessly to the pink tower and back while the other children and the guide watch silently).

Guide: Yes, that’s how we walk in the classroom.  Thank you for demonstrating, Johnny.

This can go on for 5-10 minutes, depending on the children’s interest and level of self-control.

Watching with hands behind his back (from

Watching with hands behind his back (from

What  I’ve described above is an exercise for reviewing the “limits”, without which a Montessori classroom would not be able to function.  These limits are a set of democratically-applied rules that help the classroom society function smoothly and allow the children to enjoy a level of freedom not found in traditional schools.  Limits are objective, logical, and come with natural consequences (not punishments).  They are truly the cornerstone of a functional classroom, and help the children develop self-discipline in a way that punishments and rewards never will.  Adults might be surprised to find out that the same limits apply to everyone, including the guide, aide, administrators, and any other adult that visits the classroom (as the children will quickly remind you, if you inadvertently break a rule).  

In order to keep the limits present in the children’s minds, I find it necessary to review them in small groups on a regular basis (apart from offering individual gentle reminders as needed throughout the day).  The review is normally a combination of Q & A and role-playing, with the latter serving many purposes: The children love demonstrating their ability to control their movements, the younger ones are quick to emulate the behaviors of the much-admired older children, and the visual impression of a child acting out a limit crystallizes the behavior in the minds of the others. 

One morning during summer school, as we sat in a group discussing the limits, it occurred to me that I had never heard a child ask “why” when we’d reviewed the rules (I’m not talking about the natural childhood curiosity of “Why is the sky blue?”.  This is a different type of “why”) .  Small children are very accepting and trusting, and will (for the most part) eagerly follow a guide’s requests if she knows how to approach the situation.  While this can work in a guide’s favor, it also left me wondering about the children’s true understanding of the underlying reasons for each rule, and furthermore, the implications of people who follow the rules blindly without asking “why” or only know they’ve broken a rule when they receive a punishment.  

Every parent and educator wants children to be “critical thinkers” when they grow up; we want our children to question the status quo, think outside the box, apply the scientific method, and be innovative.  But how can our children achieve this if we have created a system of education and parenting in which “because I said so” and “that’s just the way things are” are the underlying mottos?  There is no room for questions when a teacher’s priority is to get 30 students to sit quietly in rows and pass a standardized test.  Likewise, there is no room for questions when an over-worked parent’s priority is to get her “stubborn” child to go to bed.

As I sat with the group of children, I decided to try something new.  I asked one of them to show us how to carry a chair.  He took the seat with one hand and the backrest with the other, in typical Montessori fashion, walked around the classroom and brought the chair back to its table.  As he sat down, I looked at the children and asked, “Can somebody tell me why we carry a chair that way?”

Blank stares met my gaze.  I stood up, took a chair by the backrest with one hand, and picked it up.  The chair knocked against the table noisily.  The children’s eyes widened.  I then used two hands to hold the chair by the backrest, with the feet sticking out and my back arched dramatically, grabbed my back and groaned in simulated pain, and then walked by the pink tower.  The chair’s legs grazed the tower and knocked over two cubes.  The children gasped.  

I fixed the pink tower and adjusted my grip so I was carrying the chair correctly.  “Now, can somebody tell me why we carry the chair like this?”  Several arms shot up, and I got a volley of responses highlighting the different faux pas I had committed.  I put the chair down and joined the children.  “If you don’t know WHY we have a certain rule, it is important to ask,” I told them.  “It’s hard to follow rules if you don’t know why we have them.  But if you know why we have a rule, then it makes sense to you and you can follow it.”  The children looked hesitant.

“Let’s practice.”  I decided to start with something easy: “Here is a rule: In this classroom we walk.”  They all looked at me.  “Who’s going to ask why?”  A five-year old put up his hand.  I nodded and he said, “Why?”  

I replied, “Well, because if we run we can fall and get hurt, or we can trip over a material and damage it.”  A few children nodded and smiled.  “Here’s another rule,” I continued.  “In this classroom, when we watch our friends who are working, we put our hands behind our backs and stand quietly.”  I looked at the children.  A four-year old girl tentatively raised her hand and asked why.  “Well, who wants to tell us why,” I countered.  “Because if we talk and touch their material then they can’t do their work,” replied another child.  

As I continued with this exercise, the children soon lost their inhibitions and were asking “why” with enthusiasm and genuine curiosity.  The older children knew the purpose of most of the rules, because I had been careful to explain them throughout last year.  My goal, however, was not to simply help them understand the rules of the classroom; I wanted to make them aware of their right to ask why, and the empowerment and responsibility that this simple three-letter word brought with it.  As an added bonus, the children’s ability to ask “why” would help them discover the natural consequences of breaking a rule without having to experience the consequence first-hand (i.e. running in the classroom causes a person to fall and get hurt, and who wants to deal with that if they don’t have to??)

At the end of the lesson, I reminded them that if at any time in their lives there was a rule that they didn’t understand, they had the right to ask why.  “Imagine you are an adult and you know how to drive.  The rule is that you have to drive slowly.  Why?” I challenged.  “Because if you drive fast you will crash!” cried out a five-year old.  “Exactly!  But if I don’t know why I have to drive slowly, I will go fast, get in an accident, and hurt myself and others,” I concluded.  (Wow, think about it… If we helped children understand the true reasons for rules, we could have adults who drive slowly – not because they fear a ticket or points on their insurance – but because they are conscious of the true impact of their behaviors on others!!)

I also stressed that if the rule made sense to them once the reason for its existence was explained, then they had to follow the rule because “following the rules is important so we can all live together happily”.  This seemed to make perfect sense to them, and the group dispersed on a very positive note.

Throughout the day, I received several genuine “why’s”, which I gladly took the time to answer.  After they went home, I wondered if any of them would question their parents, and what response this would elicit.  I didn’t have to wait long to find out.

The very next day, a five-year old boy came in and told me his mom had told him that he shouldn’t ask why.  He seemed genuinely concerned and confused, and inwardly I was torn between helping this child conform with the pressures of home and preparing him for the world that awaited him.  I told him that we need to follow the rules that mommy and daddy have at home, because they love us and know what is best.  However, I also told him that if anyone else tells him a rule that he doesn’t understand, then he has the right to ask why.  He nodded and seemed to be mulling over my answer in his head.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but for better or for worse, the seed had been planted.

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