The New Century School‘s annual back-to-school night is a chance for parents to meet teachers, get a peek inside their kids’ school day, and reconnect with and meet other parents. Last night’s was no exception. Teachers report that although the school year has just begun, so far things are going extremely well among the group of mixed returning and new students. True to the Montessori model, the older children have done a beautiful job of welcoming their younger schoolmates and showing them the ropes. TNCS has reached a milestone: it has now existed long enough to have graduated a kindergarten class, meaning there are now half returning and half new students.
During the hour and a half session, teachers explained any changes for the 2013–2014 school year, described a day in the life of a TNCS student, and fielded questions. Specific curriculum points were not handled here; this event was more of an overview. Curriculum discussions will be held during Parent Workshops to take place in October and February (see school calendar here).
The biggest adaptation so far this year has been with the language program—which is TNCS’s hallmark. Last year, “pull-outs” were implemented, in which students left their home classroom to attend formal language instruction in another classroom. After careful consideration, TNCS administration decided to more fully embrace an immersion style of language learning, school-wide. This move has two huge advantages: 1) research shows that language acquisition happens more organically and therefore more readily and completely via immersion, and 2) this model stays true to Maria Montessori’s conviction that students will learn best if they are given a full morning in their “work zone,” (i.e., their classroom). They develop autonomy, self-confidence, and skill when they can move and work at their own individual paces. So far, this change seems to be having very positive results. Parents report hearing more and more Spanish and Mandarin being casually spoken at home, and one new student who arrived to Mr. Seller’s class speaking neither English, nor Spanish, nor Mandarin is picking up Spanish rapidly enough to be able to adequately communicate his needs.
The immersion is effected by employing native-speaking teaching assistants, Spanish in some classes, Mandarin in others. In Mr. Seller’s class, the assistant, Señora Gonzalez, is a native Spanish speaker, and she speaks exclusively Spanish in class. Students are expected to respond to her in kind and are gently reminded to do so, when necessary. Assistants not only assist the lead teacher, but they also lead certain lessons as well, so that students are learning a given lesson in the foreign language—not just vocabulary, actually learning about a topic in something other than English. Mr. Sellers’ students also get exposure to Mandarin when a Chinese assistant from another class “trades time” with Sra. Gonzalez. Again, the students get the benefit of staying put and not having to interrupt whatever work they are doing to switch gears. The Mandarin teacher comes to them (or the Spanish teacher if they are in a classroom with a Chinese assistant).
Behind the scenes, Xie Laoshi (a.k.a., Jewel) and Señora Capriles orchestrate this “shuffle” of assistants to ensure that all students get sufficient exposure to both foreign languages. They also drive the foreign language curriculum. With their language expertise as well as thorough Montessori training, they are well suited to this role, making class materials and overseeing the framework.
A Day in the Life
A typical primary student day starts with exchanging outdoor shoes for slippers to signal to students that it’s time for work to begin. “Circle time” comes next, during which the class sings, greets each other, and goes over daily topics such as the calendar. Circle time might also contain a group lesson on the monthly theme. Currently, primary students are learning about fruits and vegetables, among other topics. Next, teachers invite their students to find some individual work. Mr. Sellers delved a bit into the Montessori concept of work, explaining that “work” in the Montessori classroom is not supposed to be an unpleasant or difficult task. Rather, it’s a desired undertaking, intended to empower the student by offering productive and meaningful activity. “Their work prepares their brains for growth and development,” he said. “Even Practical Life work is preparing them for language and reading, for instance, by instilling that left-to-right progression” (see picture below).
Parents had lots of questions about how work “works.” At TNCS, there are really only two work rules, say teachers. First is that the students treat all materials with respect, which includes respecting the “work cycle” of choosing an activity, completing it, and putting it away when finished. The second is that students work with only what they are developmentally ready for. So, for instance, 3-year-olds might be naturally drawn to the very pretty bead cabinet, but because they are probably not ready for “skip-counting” (counting by 5s, 10s, 100s, etc.), they are encouraged to choose something more suitable.
Where does the teacher come in, amidst all of this lovely independent work? When the teacher sees that a student has fully engaged with a particular exploration, the teacher might come along and demonstrate the next step with a material, or introduce a new material altogether. The teacher guides the student to make additional discoveries. The teacher might also guide an older student to mentor a younger one. With a 3-year age range (age ~3 years to age ~5 years) in the primary classroom, many such opportunities arise. The younger kids are eager to please their slightly older peers, and the older kids develop self-confidence by sharing their knowledge. This lovely dynamic pervades school wide, in fact, among classrooms, not just within them.
After a lengthy work period (that will have included snack at some point), primary kids go to lunch, play on the playground, and then enter their afternoon period. For kindergartners, this means instruction with Mrs. Lawson and Mrs. Lazarony. For the 4+-year-olds, otherwise known as the “resters,” this means 20 minutes of quiet time followed by continued work. For the littlest ones, it’s naptime, a legal requirement in the state of Maryland. So-called “specials” also take place in the afternoons and include music, art, and gym.
It was clear that several parents in attendance were recalling their own early education less than fondly and wishing TNCS had been available to them. Mrs. Lawson (also a primary teacher) summed up TNCS’s specialness best: “I love Montessori because children really learn with hands-on materials instead of just by rote. They can tell you why things are the way they are.”
We’re back to school, and the kids are alright.