On February 20th, The New Century School hosted a Primary Workshop to provide parents with a firsthand experience of the Montessori approach to pre-K education. This information-filled evening was the second such Primary Workshop of the 2012–2013 school year. Workshops for Pre-primary and Elementary student parents are also held regularly and will be profiled in this blog at future points.
Unlike Open Houses and Information Nights that are general question-and-answer forums, a Workshop’s purpose is to show you specifically what your children are learning and doing during their daily class time. For those parents who did not attend Montessori school as kids, the Primary Workshop is a marvel—both eye-opening and fun. For those who did grow up in a Montessori environment, the chance to reacquaint themselves with the materials must evoke the most delicious nostalgia. Maria Montessori developed the Montessori materials based on her extensive observation of children ages 2 1/2 through 6 years. Her goal was to put academic success within their reach by setting realizable achievement milestones, so to do that, she tailored materials to be used the way she saw children interacting with their world. Primary students use these materials nearly exclusively, and seeing how the materials are actually used and learning what each does for the child’s development was the focus of the Workshop.
The evening was very well organized and executed. Parents were divided into three groups and rotated through classrooms, each featuring a presentation by either Mrs. Lawson, Mr. Sellers, or Mr. Warren. This way, parents got to see a bit of everything as well as interact with Primary teachers they might not have known as well as they do their child’s particular instructor. Montessori Primary education is divided into five distinct categories: Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, Math, and Geography (Science) and Culture. The Fall 2012 Primary Workshop explored the Practical Life and Sensorial components, leaving the remaining three for last week’s Workshop. Each teacher presented lessons to the parent group in much the same way they present lessons to students. Movements are controlled; the pace is unhurried. Thus, the student is given ample time to absorb all aspects of what is happening.
Mr. Sellers presented the Language portion of the Workshop. He described kids’ language acquisition as occurring over three major “explosions.” The first happens at age 12–18 months when babies start naming the elements of their surroundings. At around age 2 years, they begin to use sentences and describe how they feel. The final burst is at age 4–5 years when they begin to acquire reading and writing skills. Thus, they start with very concrete terms and make a series of abstractions to achieve literacy. How this translates to the Montessori classroom involves first making the student aware of the different sounds in a word, progressing to phonetics, and finally to spelling and beyond.
Mr. Sellers calls these “stepping stones into reading” and it’s easy to see how and why this approach is so effective. Over the course of the 3-year Primary cycle, a child would start with sandpaper letters—tracing a form and saying the sound with eyes first open, then closed. From there, the child learns to associate objects that start with a particular letter with the sound. The moveable alphabet, a later step, allows them to assemble letters to make words that correspond to certain objects laid next to the tray of letters.
The metal insets indirectly relate to language development. By tracing the shapes and moving through the progressively more difficult tasks associated with the insets, kids strengthen the hand muscles they need to write.
Montessori math is likewise a progression of lessons from concrete/discrete to abstract. Mr. Warren presented the math materials and described teaching math as “starting with concrete knowledge of numbers and quantity and leading to ever more complex operations like multiplication and division.”
Kids first learn to count from 1-10 and are taught the concept that those numbers represent a specific amount. They make this connection with the number rods and with numeral cards. They sequentially progress through counting with beads to learn units of 10, 100, and 1,000, which teaches them the decimal system in the bargain. By combining the physical materials with these higher-order abstractions, the child will learn addition, subtraction, and on up, yet will have truly absorbed the deeper sense of such operations rather than simply memorizing a set of, say, multiplication tables.
Mr. Warren’s approach to presenting the materials was to use a parent volunteer to walk through a cycle of lessons, who afterward said, “If I had these materials when I was in school, I might still remember how to do long division!” Thanks Mr. Warren, for providing a true hands-on experience!
Geography and Science
Mrs. Lawson introduced the group to Geography and Science. She loves these lessons, she says, because “teaching them gives me the opportunity to learn about other cultures,” adding, “and to keep in touch with my former students who have moved to China and Switzerland.” (We miss them, too, Mrs. Lawson!) She also displays objects from around the world in her classroom to have a physical representation of a particular locale always on hand.
The main reason to begin teaching these topics so young, according to Dr. Montessori, is to help kids develop spatial orientation including the vocabulary to express it (i.e., “up,” “over,” “through,” etc.) because they have such an overwhelming need for order in their environment. Putting the need together with the tool to fulfill it empowers young kids and gives them the confidence to be students, learners.
Just as with the other Montessori categories, the scientific disciplines are taught in a linear fashion. Here, teachers start with a big picture, such as the world, and move to increasingly smaller geographic units—continents to countries to right here in Baltimore. With biology, kids explore life cycles and habitats. Mrs. Lawson says she continually tries to take kids out of their “comfort zones” by asking questions like, “What is this made of?” to expand their views of their worlds.
A typical activity here might be doing puzzle maps to promote visual recognition of the names and topography of the seven continents and their relationship to each other. They also develop manual control with manipulation of the puzzle pieces. From here, kids advance to push-pinning the outlines of the various land masses and creating their own “maps.”
One take-away from the three-part Workshop was how beautifully all of the materials work together to provide a very complete and absorbing experience. Each one, though developed for a particular discipline, nevertheless encourages the child to use skills and senses from other areas. For example, the water and land mass trays also hone practical life skills (pouring the water from big pitcher to small and to the tray itself) and tune the stereognostic sense (kids touch the land masses and trace the waterway, feeling each form and storing that information away) while teaching fundamental geography. In later school years, a Montessori-educated child confronting the word, “isthmus,” for example, calls forth an immediate and multilayered concept of what that word represents that includes the physical relationship of the land to the water rather than just a memorized definition.
Emerging research has demonstrated the numerous and far-reaching benefits of preschool Montessori education (see “Preschool Conundrum Solved: Research Demonstrates Benefits of Montessori Education”). Seeing the true genius of the Montessori materials so intimately, it’s really no surprise that children derive a very full, well-rounded education by using them.
They are, after all, really made for kids.