Montessori Moments

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 21, 2009

The Why of “Why”

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

August 13, 2009


Filed under: classroom,from the child's perspective,funny,teaching — The Full Montessori @ 5:53 am
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Release, the Orb Weaver spider

Release, the Orb Weaver spider

On my way to get some pots from the schoolyard before the children arrived, I almost ran face first into a quarter-sized spider sitting in the center of her web.  As I walked by, I must have pulled one of the invisible silk threads anchoring the web to the trellis frame, for the web collapsed and the harmless Orb Weaver spider ran for cover.  

Since I had already inadvertently destroyed its home, I decided to invite it into our classroom for a while.  I wanted the children to experience nature up close and discover its beauty and usefulness.  Perhaps then they would stop acting violently against it out of fear and ignorance.

I gingerly coaxed the spider into our critter cage and as the children arrived I introduced them to our visitor.  Thirteen little ones gathered in awe around the small mesh-covered enclosure, so I told them that we would enjoy the spider’s company for the morning and would release it in the playground after lunch.  One of my five-year olds, a boy I’ll call C., suggested we name the spider “Release”, since that’s what we would do to it.  I was hesitant to give it a name, since I didn’t want the children to either a) grow attached to something that wasn’t theirs to keep, or b) give the eight-legged creature anthropomorphic qualities.  However, they insisted and I agreed.

Before starting the work period, we talked about why spiders were so important to our ecosystem, and I helped them understand that spiders only use their venom as a defensive tactic.  We talked about their role in the food chain and why we’re lucky to have them.  Most of the children then went on with their daily routine.  C., however, was enthralled with the spider, as I knew he would be.  He sat in front of the critter cage for almost an hour, exclaiming “It’s moving!” or “It’s making a web!” from time to time.  He then asked me for a book on spiders so he could study more about our visitor, and I willingly obliged.  

After lunchtime, we took the crate to the playground and I carefully released “Release” back into the bushes.  The spider scurried over the mulch to find a hiding spot as the children said their goodbyes.  Mission accomplished, they all stood up and joined the children from other classrooms who were just arriving on the playground.  Minutes later, as I stood close to the bushes, I heard C. tell a friend, “You see those bushes?  That’s where we released a South American Tarantula.”

July 22, 2009

Of the Teaching Profession

Filed under: from the child's perspective,teaching — The Full Montessori @ 2:52 am
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I had a conversation with a five-year old girl today while I was sitting and writing some observations. It went a little something like this:

Girl: Did you decide to be a teacher when you were a kid?
Me: No, I decided to become a teacher when I was an adult.
Girl: Oh, so you became a teacher instead of doing a lot of work.

Another student, a little boy who’s a real handful, once told me he wanted to become a teacher. Swelling with pride, I replied, “Really?” To which he answered, “Yes, because then you get to tell people what to do.”

Is that how children really see their teachers, as people who do very little work and tell others what to do? I remember viewing my teachers as paragons of knowledge, and if they told us what to do it was because rules were necessary for the functioning of our classroom society. I remind myself that respect breeds respect, and in every interaction I strive to treat the children with the respect they deserve as individuals and human beings. What more can be done?

July 19, 2009

Back-to-School Jitters

Filed under: back to school,classroom,teaching — The Full Montessori @ 12:33 am
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Exactly one year ago, I began my career as a Montessori guide. Armed with a year of intensive theoretical schooling and hundreds of hours of observations and practice sessions, I entered the classroom excited and confident. My composure lasted about ten minutes.

During my first days as a guide, I was struck by the exhaustion I experienced at all levels: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. You might look at a Montessori classroom towards the end of the year and see the teacher moving calmly as the children go about their work with focus and diligence, but in reality the first few weeks of school are utter and complete chaos.

I remember dashing across the room just in time to grab a 2.5-year old who was scampering up a shelf, and then swinging back around to stop a 3-year old from slamming a fishbowl on the floor (I was too late, but the fish survived). Then there’s the constant crouching and stooping to interact with the children at eye level and show them how to use materials. (We call it “giving presentations”, and it involves either perching on a little chair, sitting cross-legged on the floor, or hunching over a knee-high table).

The crying of the new children is incessant, and those who aren’t howling are speaking loudly so they can be heard above the chaos. I’ll never forget standing in the teacher’s kitchen and opening a cupboard to get a glass. I was confronted with an array of OTC painkillers; it seems each teacher has her drug of choice for coping with the pounding headaches that characterize those first hectic weeks.

Apart from the physical challenges, you become mentally exhausted trying to remember 24 names, 24 personalities, assorted food allergies, 300+ presentations, a dozen children’s songs, and to whom you showed what material. After the children leave for the day, the phone calls begin. Two dozen parents, anxious to know how their child’s first day of school went, overwhelm the phone lines. My favorite line to parents: “Oh, no, Johnny stopped crying as soon as he entered the classroom.”

Emotionally, the first week of school is a roller coaster ride. Your heart goes out to the tiny ones who are crying, and you remember how it felt to be left alone by your parents in an unfamiliar environment. You rack your brain to find the right material to charm one child; just as her cries subside and she takes an interest in a piece of work, a little boy across the room remembers that mommy isn’t there, and belts out a plaintive wail. You look around the classroom and ask yourself if you have what it takes to deal with the day-to-day challenges of the profession, such as cleaning vomit, wiping noses, and singing “The Wheels on the Bus” for the 435th time.

The part that wears one out the most, though, is the constant self-analysis (or, as Maria Montessori called it, spiritual preparation): Am I allowing the children to reach their full potential? Am I guiding or am I teaching? Did I present that material too late? Are my movements slow and concise enough to leave clear imprints in the child’s mind? Why didn’t I become an accountant?

There comes a moment, normally a few weeks into the school year, when all of this madness becomes worthwhile. It usually starts out with something simple like squeezing a sponge into a bucket. As you kneel on the wet floor with the child solemnly sitting by your side, your eyes meet. You squeeze the sponge and make a funny face. The child, who until then had hovered near you wide-eyed and hesitant, looks deep into your eyes and emits a laugh that comes from her soul. In that brief moment, the chaos of the classroom falls away and all that matters is that golden bond, that light that sparks when two souls meet. The child understands that the teacher is someone she can trust, someone who is coming from a place of love. The teacher, in turn, knows that her true work as a guide can begin.

As I prepare to return to work tomorrow, I write these words to remind myself to trust. I will trust that I have the physical strength to get through each day, the mental acuity to remain sharp and focused, the emotional maturity to see the big picture, and the spiritual insight to learn from my mistakes. Above all, I will trust the child, the Method, and the knowledge that I don’t walk alone.

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