On January 26th, The New Century School hosted a Primary Workshop to provide parents with a firsthand experience of the Montessori approach to pre-K education for students ages 3, 4, and 5 years. This information-filled evening was the second such Primary Workshop of the 2016–2017 school year and covered the second half of the Montessori curriculum—Language Arts, Math, Science, and Global Studies. The Practical Life and Sensorial aspects were covered in the fall workshop.
The workshop’s purpose is to show parents specifically what their 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.
Each primary lead teacher provided an overview of the discipline she was representing, but all four teachers cover all disciplines in their respective classrooms. They began by demonstrating how they present a “lesson” on a given material (a “work”): Movements are controlled and orderly; the pace is decidedly unhurried. Thus, the student is given ample time to absorb all aspects of what is happening. The overriding theme of the evening was that all lessons begin with the simplest concepts and move to increasingly complex ones. The student builds on and deepens understanding this way, rather than merely mimicking or memorizing.
Catherine Lawson presented the Language portion of the Workshop. The Montessori philosophy describes 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. (You may have even noticed that your primary-age student identifies the letter “a,” not by its name but by its sound. This is intentional, and Mrs. Lawson encouraged parents to do so as well. It’s less important for the child to know the name of the letter than to grasp its function.)
These “stepping stones into reading” demonstrate why this approach is so effective. Over the course of the 3-year primary cycle, a child starts 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.
Mrs. Lawson says that language acquisition is perhaps the most important facet of child development, enhancing every other aspect. Communication also inherently conveys order—there’s a beginning, middle, and end, which underpins the Montessori approach as well.
She also recommended some handy tips for how to continue language development at home. The best we can do for our kids is to read and/or tell stories to them. (This advice is not exclusive to Montessori kids, of course, but it’s still nice to be reminded that our bedtime efforts are going to yield future dividends!) Another important at-home activity is to enrich kids’ vocabulary by identifying things that may be unfamiliar to them, such as kitchen tools. As you explain new words, adds Mrs. Lawson, make sure you emphasize the sounds within each words so the child learns correct articulation and enunciation.
Language and communication are integral to thought; giving the child the tools to express him or herself will build his or her confidence to communicate—and therefore to think—more effectively.
The primary classroom is also multilingual: Students benefit from having an assistant teacher who is a native speaker of either Spanish or Mandarin Chinese, and these teachers rotate through the four primary classrooms so that all students are regularly exposed to both languages. For more on TNCS’s philosophy on multilingualism, please search the Immersed archives for many posts on the topic, such as TNCS’s Foreign Language Program Embraces the 5 Cs and Multilingual Media for Kids: Explore Beyond Dora; Bid Kai-Lan Farewell!. This article on multilingualism and enhanced learning is also informative.
Montessori math is likewise a progression of lessons from concrete/discrete to abstract. Michelle Hackshaw 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.” She repeatedly emphasized the importance of understanding what the numeric symbols represent.
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.
Maria Mosby handled the Science portion of the workshop. Just as with the other Montessori categories, the scientific disciplines are taught from simple to complex, but here the progression can be less linear, as students are strongly encouraged to discover the natural world, rather than simply be told about it, explained Ms. Mosby. Science tends toward botany and biology, with kids exploring, for example, life cycles and habitats or getting a tactile boost from perusing the sundry contents of the “nature basket.” Ms. Mosby says she uses every opportunity to get kids out of their “comfort zones” by asking questions like, “What is this made of?” to launch various lines of inquiry and expand student’s views of their worlds.
Probably the favorite activity among the younger primary crowd is the Sink and Float work, in which kids get to pour water (what?) into a vessel and then systematically dunk items (what?) into the vessel to see which will float and which will sink. Montessori is nothing if not kid-friendly!
Lisa Reynolds introduced the group to Global Studies. “These lessons, she says, “give students the opportunity to learn about other cultures.” Primary teachers also display objects from around the world in their classrooms to have a physical representation of a particular locale always on hand.
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. Students 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.” Another popular Global Studies activity is learning about the relationships between various types of land masses and water.
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.
Putting It All Together
One takeaway from the four-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.
For more on the Montessori Method in TNCS primary classrooms, view primary-workshop_january-26-2017.
Finally, Head of School Alicia Danyali, who also introduced and opened the workshop, closed by illuminating another unifying thread of the Montessori curriculum and, indeed, TNCS as a whole: tolerance, kindness, respect. These qualities inform what Mrs. Danyali calls TNCS’s “invisible curriculum,” which, despite the lack of rubrics to measure individual progress by, is felt in every part of TNCS operations. If it’s hard to visualize young children exemplifying these traits deliberately, come watch a TNCS primary classroom in real time, where you’ll see students seamlessly migrating from work station to work station, helping one another, and above all respecting the space they are in as well as the other members of their harmonious community.