Author Archive | Agnieszka Rekucka

Montessori elementary student’s work

Front and center in an elementary glass classroom in the Czech Republic: supplies for students to create their own work. Photo © Agnieszka Rekucka

What is the work Montessori elementary students do and where do workbooks and tablets fit into the picture?

According to a survey by Angeline Lillard Ph.D., an American psychologist committed to the field of Montessori research, 100% Association Montessori Internationale trainers and 65% American Montessori Society trainers agree that workbooks do not belong in a Montessori classroom, with the rest finding them acceptable at best.

In the field of pedagogy, it is not only Montessorians that finds workbooks far from best practice. In the commentary to the national core curriculum published by the Polish Ministry of Education

professor Edyta Gruszczyk-Kolczyńska points out that teachers, in general, have excessive faith in the educational power of workbooks.

They simply do not deliver results that are expected of them.

Do we need to devise better workbooks then? Not really. For early elementary students, it is not developmentally appropriate to spend time sitting down and filling workbooks upon workbooks of schoolwork and homework, whether on paper or on a tablet.

For the early elementary level (grades 1 to 3) Polish law currently approves up to 50% time for language education for reading and writing while sitting at a table, and up to 25% time for mathematics for solving math workbook problems. Any teacher (or textbook author for that matter) who requires more of their students is not only acting against principles of Montessori education, but also against the law.

It is also worth noting that, as Polish Ministry of Education confirms, in Polish education law there is no obligation to use textbooks and workbooks at all. Therefore the school is free to spend the money allocated to textbooks and workbooks for the students on other educational materials instead.

What is the problem with workbooks? First of all, they are not very social in their design, requiring each student to work alone at their desk. They are not emotionally engaging because it is hard for a student to get excited about filling another page of a workbook. They follow a linear curriculum and usually provide closed-ended questions, not engaging critical thinking. By their very nature, they are standardized and do not take individual strengths and challenges into consideration.

The problem that with learning one size does not fit all has been recognized outside the Montessori community and various solutions have been devised. Let me briefly mention graded workbooks, like those which come with mathematics program “Matematyka z kluczem” by Marcin Braun, Agnieszka Mańkowska and Małgorzata Paszyńska, where students get one of the several different workbooks available, according to their ability, from the gifted to those attending supplementary lessons. The system recognizes that students simply will not solve the same math problems at the same time with the same proficiency, and aims to challenge students with problems at their level.

Another way of adjusting the pace of workbook work are tablet playlists, like those in use by ALT School in the USA. A playlist contains a set of individually graded tablet exercises of all school subjects for a week, chosen by an algorithm, based on the student’s previous performance. The system also aims to avoid allocating work that is too easy or too difficult for the student and orient the learning process towards mastery.

These solutions still require either the teacher or the algorithm to tell the student to complete a certain amount of schoolwork or homework, though.

Montessori materials, on the other hand, address the issue of individualization, as well as student engagement and self-pacing the work. They diffuse to more and more schools, which do not necessarily follow the Montessori approach. That is why it is worth noting that the Montessori apparatus is not to be considered as a collection of didactic materials, employed by the teacher to illustrate their lesson, as an introduction to workbook exercises.

From their beginning, Montessori materials were meant as tools of a child’s psychomotor activity, to reach the mind through the hand, to be owned by a child and to satisfy the internal hunger for being active and extracting understanding from their own experience.

Montessori apparatus based on concrete materials is exactly this: aids to abstraction. The teacher must anticipate and help with preparation, but never force the leap into abstraction. It is not to be expected of the child to be able, for example, to do calculations in their head. They will be amazed at their own accomplishment that ‘I can do it by myself now, like magic!’. The joy of such a discovery belongs to the child alone.

That is why there is no need to discourage the use of concrete materials or to value workbook work higher. A child works with Montessori materials as long as they are needed, according to one’s own internal process of maturing, and abandons them when one is ready, without the fear of ‘falling behind’ or being labeled as a remedial class student.

Is it fine then if we have an elementary classroom full of Montessori apparatus? Not yet.

When we look at a school-aged child’s needs and tendencies, we arrive at the conclusion that it is not only filling workbooks, but also matching cards not the kind of challenging work that makes a 6-12-year-olds blossom. Elementary students are naturally attracted to the big work, collaborating with their peers, experiments, research and self-directed going-outs.

As Baiba K. Grazzini, director of Montessori elementary training in Bergamo, Italy, said: if you have prepared beautiful materials for every topic imaginable, please leave them at home, because it is obviously you who needs them. What your students need is for you to ignite the interest in big topics and then leave the space for asking questions and following through with one’s own quest for knowledge.

Montessori presentations devised specifically for the elementary classroom are exactly these: aids to the imagination. These are followed by self-directed projects requiring teamwork, designing a process from start to finish and then executing, with necessary pivoting along the way, which is the primary way of work at the Montessori elementary level.

This way, not only do children gain knowledge, but also practical life, observation, communication and research skills, along with self-confidence and sense of accomplishment.

What needs to be supplied then are the materials to conduct experiments, construct models, create posters and yes, why not tablets – to code, not to play a pre-loaded, so-called “educational” track.

A Montessori elementary classroom respects the natural rhythm of work, allowing students to freely take ‘breaks’ from the challenging, big work, spending time quietly with the movable Montessori materials in the form of beads, figurines, cards, as well as art, handicraft, and DIY projects. These are often treated by the children as ‘recess activities’ and should be available at all times to provide freely-chosen, meaningful occupation.

And finally, what about those children who simply like to work in a workbook? There is a wonderful Montessori way of doing it which in its most simple form requires only blank paper, a paper punch and a piece of string. A workbook handmade by the child, with exercises matched precisely to their level and possible to finish in a few days respects a child’s autonomy and puts success within reach. If provided freedom in making their own workbooks, children soon start spontaneously decorating them with ornaments and learning more advanced techniques of bookbinding. They also collaborate on devising exercises for one another.

Which really helps them make the educational process their own.

 

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Where to begin?

(050114-RREI-8195) Washington DC Jan. 14, 2005 LAYC LAMB Public Charter Montessori School which is pre K and K, but will add a grade a year through 6th grade. They are currently operating at Our Redeemer Church on Michigan Ave. NE. Instruction is bilingual - spanish in the morning and english in the afternoon. (c) Rick Reinhard / Impact Digitals 2005

A child in a Montessori preschool, USA by Rick Reinhard / Bread for the World CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I have just learned about Montessori and I absolutely love it. Where do I start?

Prioritize your education

I advise getting the best Montessori training, according to your needs and means, vs getting the best Montessori apparatus, or “toys”. Options include full diploma courses, one-time seminars, and individual consultations. If your child attends a school operating on Montessori principles, you will not need to take teacher training, but parent education is very helpful. If you intend to teach, a diploma from a reputable training centre for the level you are teaching is a must. In any instance, reading is strongly encouraged.

With a little bit of education and a lot of apparatus you won’t be able to help a child as much as with a solid Montessori background and acquiring little bits of apparatus over time. An enlightened adult is a crucial point of a prepared environment.

Trust the child

The same way you trust their genetic code to give the child’s iris a certain color or to form new cells to heal a scraped knee, have faith in the psychic development plan present in every human. Education in the Montessori sense is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It can only happen when children do things themselves in freedom.

If you say: “our children are not ready to take so much responsibility”, it will inevitably lead you to create workarounds to prevent actual Montessori experience from happening.

Trust yourself

When learning about Montessori, people are often dazzled by Dr. Maria Montessori‘s genius, but we must not forget she was a scientist, observing the genius of nature. Observation coupled with patience and accurate interpretation is the cornerstone of Montessori practice.

Please come and see how children interact with a prepared environment. This will allow you to observe what they are capable of when obstacles to their spontaneous activity have been removed. You are welcome to come when a local Montessori school hosts an open house. You can also enquire about the possibility of hospitation – most schools are happy to let you observe for an hour or two.

The observation outcomes will guide your own practice in removing the obstacles posed for children in their environment and inspire you to ask the right questions. Seeing what is possible, even being amazed by it, will allow you to trust that the best approach is to treat children with respect and kindness at all times.

Start from real tasks

It is important for a real task to be accomplished each day. Make a point of allowing children to be productive each day. Baking bread together or raking leaves in the garden brings a true sense of accomplishment.

You can have the complete Montessori apparatus on the shelves but if children do not experience it for themselves in freedom, it will not fulfill the purpose it was designed for. The only activity that is educational is the one freely chosen by the child.

Time and time again, a child starts from practical life. Preparing a snack, watering plants, washing a window or scrubbing a table – anything that they are able to bring from a beginning to an end. Make all the supplies ready and invite the child to use them whenever they wish.

Even the smallest of practical life activities achieves great things in the mind, brings calm amidst all life’s crises and builds self-confidence without which there will be no progress, academic or otherwise. Practical life is of no less importance for the older children than for the youngest ones.

Let them own what is theirs

Do not replace children in tasks they are capable of doing and choices they are capable of taking. If not yet capable, help them to do it themselves.

Exercising the power to act and to choose brings a sense of ownership. Let them own and care for their personal belongings, their classroom, their educational process. Lack of ownership will cause psychic hunger that will disrupt other areas of life.

Laying the table is a toddler’s job (and all levels above). Planning a school trip is an elementary student’s job (and all levels above). It starts with making an attempt to take part.

Model behaviour

This is actually the counter-intuitive part. It is easy to expect a certain behaviour from a child and when they fail, be disappointed and correct them. Montessori teaches us to anticipate what might happen, model the right behaviour beforehand and instead of expecting certain results, simply observe. The advantages of this approach for the adult are two-fold.

Firstly, modeling behaviour is faster than correcting in making the child internalize the behaviour. It happens because human beings are so constructed that they can receive positive stimulus for development from the outside world only through the channel of love. It is the only true way of communication capable of penetration. In other words, it is much harder for a child to remember the content of your negative correction than your positive presentation.

Secondly, observation provides us with invaluable knowledge on the child’s development and what needs to be presented in the future.

Of course, when safety is jeopardized, we need to intervene briefly and efficiently. It is definitely not the time to lecture the child at length, though.

The advantages of this approach for the child are growing in the atmosphere of respect and acceptation, and being provided with strategies to deal with situations they will face.

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Music, rhythmic exercises and children’s concerts

Concert at Sto Pociech

Children make music at Summer New Town Festival in Warsaw, Poland © Agnieszka Rekucka

Every child is musical. Although not every Montessori teacher plays the piano nowadays, they can lead an integrated Montessori music program in the prepared environment through education of auditory sense, introduction to music theory, rhythmic exercises and children’s concerts.

We may tend to regard music as the domain of a gifted minority. However, professional musicians and music cognition scientists alike claim musicality to be a universal human trait. In the Montessori approach, music is considered in a way similar to language, in which a child grows from their first expressions to accomplished mastery of its beauty and nuances if exposed to a rich environment. It becomes clear why it is not enough to enroll a child in a weekly class: daily life experiences are indispensable in musical education.

A child starts hearing sounds in the second trimester of pregnancy. Ever since they acquire the culture of their particular time and place also with their ears. Dr. Maria Montessori regarded lullabies, folk songs and dances, as well as music accompanying religious celebrations as valuable sources of diverse auditory experiences. It is worth noting that a complex beat, characteristic of many folk music traditions, manages to stimulate the brain development in a way no popular song with w simple 4/4 beat ever would.

A great part of the enjoyment in listening to music comes when the child first anticipates what comes next and then their expectations are met, with the anticipated phrase arriving as a welcome old friend. Therefore, listening to music plays an important psychological role, helping build the sense of trust to environment, assurance of its order and continuity.

For those wondering where to start and what pieces are the most suitable for young children to begin to appreciate classical music, you can get inspired with the following list.

Dr. Maria Montessori in Montessori Elementary Materials recommends exposing children first to Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and a broad selection of opera classics. Isenarda da Napoli in her booklet Music and the Montessori Method adds the following pieces to the curriculum in the Casa dei Bambini:

  • S. Prokofiev, Peter and the Wolf, symphonic fairy tale
  • B. Britten, Variations and Fugue on a theme by Purcell
  • C. Saint-Saëns, The Carnival of the Animals
  • F. Poulenc, The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant
  • L. Mozart, The Toy’s Symphony
  • W. A. Mozart, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
  • R. Schumann, Kinderszenen
  • C. Debussy, Children’s Corner
  • P. I. Tchaikovsky, Sleeping Beauty, Suite from Ballet
  • P. I. Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker, Suite from Ballet
  • G. Rossini, Cinderella
  • A. Vivaldi, The Four Seasons
  • F. Mendelssohn, Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • H. Villa-Lobos, Bachiana Brasileiras
  • P. Dukas, The Wizard Apprentice
  • M. Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition
  • I. Stravinsky, Petrouschka

As you can see, some of these works were actually created with children in mind, while other resonate well with the young audience due to a clear structure with enough complexity to be interesting, but not so much to be confusing. As it is true with all Montessori materials, music recordings and equipment should be carefully chosen for their quality, to make sure music auditions are pleasant and do justice to both the composer and the performer.

In a Montessori environment, they are not so much meant as a background music, as for mindful listening, a sort of a children’s concert. The next step is talking with children, posing increasingly complex questions, beginning with which instruments were being played, where the selected piece would be heard (church, theatre, concert hall), and arriving at the different sound features (pitch, intensity, length), dynamics, structure and style of the piece.

Tonal awareness followed by musical vocabulary is introduced in an engaging way by a series of exercises first with the sensorial and then with the musical material designed by Maria Montessori and her lifelong collaborator and musician, Anna Maria Maccheroni. The materials are available every day in the classroom and a child can work with them as long as they need, at their own pace. This way, children are also growing in their ability to describe the music they hear.

A few words should be said here on the subject of rhythmic exercises. Maria Montessori was certain it would be educationally backward to give specific verbal commands to children who interpret music with their bodies. The language to decode during rhythmic exercises is, therefore, the language of music, which dictates suitable movement with its beat, tempo, volume, etc. In a gradual process, continuing with daily experiences in the prepared environment, children learn to hear these features and interpret them with rhythmic exercises. However, it is vital to accept that sometimes a child might prefer to use their hands to “conduct” or simply lay still for mindful listening.

Of course, music playback can be only a supplement to live music given by the teacher, guest musicians, attended on a going out, and played by the children themselves. Making music combines mathematics, movement and senses all at once, with real-time fine-tuning. That is why it brings brain development to new levels. And it is simply a special way to enjoy music, full of inherent emotions. If the desire to make music is to become contagious for children, live music should be the primary way to experience it.

Montessori music education incorporates elements borrowed from Orff, Jacques-Dalcroze, Kodaly and Suzuki. That is why it seamlessly prepares for learning to play an instrument, particularly following the Orff or the Suzuki method if the family wishes to pursue it. The Montessori environment will provide a strong foundation, allowing children to mature in their musicality and get acquainted with music theory, and most importantly cultivate a lifelong enjoyment of music as an experience that gets better when shared. 

 

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A method in the madness, or what is Montessori?

Maria Montessori in Casa dei Bambini

Maria Montessori with a child at work with sensory material via MontessoriCentenary.org

When I am asked what I do, I often hear: ‘I know, Montessori! It’s this innovation at preschools. But what is it about?’ A question fit for an exam and we are just having a cup of coffee. Let me here prepare myself for the following inevitable coffee exam.

You can easily find online that Maria Montessori was born in Italy in 1870 (true), she became a doctor (also true) and it all began with intellectually disabled children (right). But that was only the point of departure. To sum up Maria Montessori’s lifetime of work with: ‘a psychiatrist treated the sane as the ill’ seems to me like calling Leonardo da Vinci a pencil drawer and a maker of sketches. Of course, it is true, but it misses the point of the person’s phenomenon in its entirety.

Maria Montessori conducted a science experiment which lets us see what the children really mean. People were coming to her school and were amazed, asking: ‘How do you make those children so calm and content? Why do they walk carefully and unroll their rugs fondly, and then pick up pieces of a puzzle one by one? We also have children of our own, we have nurseries, kindergartens and schools of our own and we know full well that this cannot be normal!’

That is why she told the story of how it happened in her first book in 1909, which was translated into English as The Montessori Method (you can click on the link to download the free ebook from Gutenberg.org). It was already known that her experiment in Casa dei Bambini was absolutely replicable and the same outcome was happening in other countries.

To ‘this cannot be normal’ argument she replied: ‘On the contrary, this is in fact normal. The children by themselves, out of their own initiative take from the shelf what interests them. They repeat the same action not out of obsession, but out of scientific curiosity. Each repetition leads to greater precision of movement and increases the sense of ‘I can do it’. For children, it is the most normal thing in the world. Nobody made them do it. It was not because of outside pressure, but because of the internal process of normalization.’

However, the outcry of ‘this cannot be normal’ contains a grain of truth. The person who says it is a keen observer, ready to accept a reality check. This person already knows there are no pleas, threats and social engineering practices capable of making a child pick pieces of a puzzle one by one if he or she does not enjoy it.

It would be great if Montessori parents and educators always were so observing and open-minded. Sometimes we see that it does not work, but we still repeat all the ineffective pedagogical methods: we correct, we tell off, we chastise. It works temporarily at best and then we plea to the conscience, we promise rewards, we threaten with punishments, we emotionally blackmail. And then we are surprised there are no calm, content children in sight.

The effective method is the Montessori method. By the way, it is not a method of helping adults mold ‘perfect children’, but a method of helping children develop their potential. That is why it is called by some wise people ‘the Montessori anthropology’ (from the Greek word for human: anthropos), because it says more about what happens with the human being than about how to raise children. Or it is called ‘the Montessori system’, because those who are certain that the Earth is in the centre (or the pedagogue knows best) are in for a Copernican Revolution.

Normalization is one of the indicators that the Montessori method works – an effect, not a cause. About the real cause, an absolute foundation, Maria Montessori wrote more in 1916 in her book Spontaneous Activity in Education.

Since the very beginning, spontaneous activity has been a key condition in the Casa dei Bambini experiment. How does it happen that between all the rugs, puzzles, dressing frames, sandpaper letters and golden beads we forget about a child’s freedom?

Spontaneity is no different to a child’s initiative: ‘I wish’, ‘I am interested’, ‘it speaks to me and brings me joy’. I meet many parents with wisdom and sensitivity to carefully observe their child, wishing to give space to this spontaneity. I meet many welcoming teachers, who say with a smile: ‘Good morning! How was your weekend? What are you going to work with today?’

There is fundamental optimism in the Montessori method; there is trust that it is really possible to be together with children in such a way. Maria Montessori asked for a maximum amount of freedom and the conditions allowing each child to benefit from it. It requires deeply ingrained optimism to ask a child, almost three years old, ‘What are you going to work on today?’ and then respect his or her choice. But what seems even harder is to ask the same question to a ten-year-old, when there are state requirements, all sorts of tests and exams in the picture.

If questions come up, like: ‘Is this really free choice? Spontaneous? What if…’  – then great. I encourage you to treat your own questions seriously. I encourage you to come and see a Montessori school. Talk to the teachers. Read Maria Montessori’s works. Learn from others at workshops, courses and conferences.

That is what professional Montessorians do. We come across problems and search for solutions, continue educating ourselves and meet to share our experiences. We invite our colleagues, asking them to observe our practice and tell us where we could act differently.

There are two basic questions then. The first one, for the child: ‘What are you going to work with today?’. The second one, for the adults: ‘How to work in order to respect a child’s spontaneous activity?’ For the second question, the Montessori method is the answer. 

  An earlier version of this article has been published before on Metoda Montessori.

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