Editor’s Note: For the 2014–2015 school year, TNCS modified the kindergarten program to better accommodate the growing student body. While the primary program still comprises a 3-year cycle, kindergarteners now move up to the elementary floor for a mixed-age K/1st classroom instead of kindergarten taking place within the primary classroom. This adaptation has proven a marvelous success and provides another very important transition mark for students as they broach their elementary years. The gist of the post below, therefore, still very much applies.
The New Century School offers a fresh, progressive approach to educating young children. Kids age 5 years and younger get the nurturing, caring environment provided by the Montessori classroom, and elementary-age kids get a specially designed program that encompasses technology, STEM, the Arts, physical education, language arts, and foreign languages. So what does Kindergarten, that sort of in-between scholastic phase, look like at TNCS?
Appropriately, in some ways it’s a hybrid of the primary Montessori and progressive elementary programs. To say that it’s simply a stepping stone between one phase and the next really doesn’t capture the essence of TNCS Kindergarten, however, nor does it consider the very real importance of this period of development in a child’s life. Says Robin Munro, Director of Admissions, “A lot of parents see Kindergarten as the beginning of ‘big kid school’.” Indeed, in the public school system, Kindergarten is expressly geared toward prepping for first grade. As one mother describes her son’s day in a Baltimore City public charter school, students have a laundry list of skills they must acquire to pass, they work at desks for much of the day just as they will in their elementary years, and the atmosphere is one of strict adherence to the curriculum–it has to be with classrooms of 30 and more children. “It was a huge wake-up call for [my son],” she said, who attended a parochial preschool.
But in all this urgency to get ready for first grade, what actually happened to Kindergarten? Says Ms. Munro, “For TNCS, Kindergarten is more like the conclusion of preschool. Its not a ‘send-off’; we are instituting a radical cultural shift.” Here, the focus is on the child’s development rather than academic achievement. This is a critical point, and one that many of us parents in the fever of making sure our children are “ready,” have a hard time coming to grips with. This begs the question, ready for what, exactly? For TNCS, being “ready” to move on is in some ways a paradox. A child is developmentally where that child is, and it’s the school’s job to meet him or her there, rather than the other way around. (This is the beauty of mixed-age classrooms, which inherently avoid pigeonholing children into certain categories based solely—and rather arbitrarily—on age.) However, it would be naive to pretend that our kids don’t have to measurably progress academically, and TNCS is by no means throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, the answer to “ready for what?” becomes more about the child’s social and emotional skills than about his or her scholastic performance. Says Alicia Danyali, Head of School, “We don’t abandon the child’s development. Their social self needs to be nurtured much more than their academics at this age.”
TNCS’s Kindergarten Information Night this past Thursday provided additional insight into the inner workings of TNCS’s radical approach. Both Ms. Danyali and Ms. Munro were on hand to provide program overviews and answer questions, and primary/Kindergarten teachers Mrs. Catherine Lawson and Mr. Jonathan Sellers presented their Kindergarten curricula. In effect, a primary student’s third year of the 3-year primary cycle becomes his or her Kindergarten year.
A K student’s day starts just like his or her primary classmates’ day. The K student has the range of Montessori materials at hand to independently choose from. Because the student has already spent 2 years in this classroom, he or she is naturally gravitating to the more math and language-oriented materials, as appropriate for his or her age and skill level, rather than Practical Life and Sensorial. However, if he or she prefers the latter sometimes, that’s completely okay, just as it’s fine for the younger kids to want to learn skip-counting with the bead cabinet if they are ready (yikes—that word again) for it. Another part of the Montessori classroom popular with the 5-year-olds and the Ks is the language drawers. These materials designed by a Montessori educator take the tried and true Montessori approach to learning to read and spell but house it in an organized system of cubbies, each containing a set of cards or objects that the student must represent as a word on paper. It’s a very logical extension of the moveable alphabet, and the kids love both the self-guided nature of this activity as well as the immediate gratification and sense of accomplishment they derive from completing each drawer.
The bead cabinet and the language drawers are just two of many materials available to the Ks (and, again, to all primary students no matter what age). As Mr. Sellers put it, “Although there are no specifically K Montessori materials per se, we’re providing the Ks with all the materials they need to set them up for success.” After the morning spent in their respective primary classrooms, lunch, and 30 minutes of quiet time (which can be resting, listening to music, reading a book, etc.), all Ks gather together from all primary classrooms as one group. Thus, says Ms. Danyali,”Ks don’t have to wait until the afternoon to do age-appropriate work, but they come together as a group in the afternoons to do work specific to the K curriculum.” She also points out that a full day in Kindergarten is mandated by the state of Maryland, so TNCS is not able to offer a half-day K program.
Kindergarten is, thus, within the Montessori classroom and stretching a little beyond it. The Kindergarten curriculum is well-rounded and takes into account that the students do need to demonstrate certain abilities by the year’s end. However, Mrs. Lawson is quick to remind us that “Children don’t work for products. Its adults who expect that.” The kids are doing the work for the sheer love of discovery. Important skills are also cultivated, such as good handwriting and computer basics. Each day of the week focuses on a different curricular area, including Global Studies, Language Arts, Math, and Science. Foreign languages are still taught within the primary morning group, and they get art and music in both environments. The Kindergarten program lets K-age children be kids, be nurtured, and blossom—at their pace—in whatever areas they are ready to bloom in. The atmosphere is that same caring environment they are familiar with and happy in; this encourages them to flourish rather than expend all of their energy adapting to unfamiliar—and potentially very discomfiting—surroundings.
Nevertheless, we parents sometimes can’t help letting that doubt creep in that our K-age children will be the oldest in their primary classroom and therefore deriving the least benefit. Research into the benefits for all ages in the mixed-age classroom is unequivocal: the mentor–mentee relationship is mutually beneficial in all sorts of ways. But the real advantage here is that our children are probably doing more advanced work than they would be doing at an other-than-independent school while being able to still be the little kids that they are, getting all the nurturing and special care they still need.
Visit the archives for the Top 10 Reasons to Attend a Montessori Kindergarten.