TNCS Primary Workshop 2017

Last month, The New Century School hosted a Primary Workshop to provide parents with a firsthand experience of the Montessori approach to pre-K education. 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. 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.

There are four lead Montessori teachers this year: Lisa Reynolds, Elizabeth Bowling, Maria Mosby, and Yangyang Li, and each presented an aspect of the primary curriculum.

tncs-primary-workshop-2017

Work Cycle

Mrs. Bowling went first, introducing the foundational concept of the work cycle. “This is so incredibly important and something we are always looking for in the children,” she began. “The classroom environment focuses on independence, sense of order, concentration, and coordination. This takes time not only to develop within a child but it takes time in the day as well, so we do our best to provide an uninterrupted work time, usually 3 hours, in the morning.” She explained that, as Montessori educators, they are closely observing what materials that the students opt to work with because it demonstrates where their interests lie and also shows the student’s mindset. “You want them to practice lessons you’ve given them, but you also want them to be able to go back to works that they’ve mastered as well.”

The work cycle has three parts: preparation, working, completing (putting away). To prepare, the student spreads out a throw rug and lays out the components of the “work*” in an orderly fashion. Next the student does the work, following the steps as the teacher has previously shown them. Finally, they clean up the work, put it away on the shelf, and choose a new work. “That’s a lot when you’re 3, or 4, or even 5 and 6,” said Mrs. Bowling. “So, again, that takes some time to develop but it’s what we’re working on every day with your child, that complete follow through. This consistency aids the development of care and respect for their belongings and the environment. It also shows their ability to follow directions. It even introduces the basics for plot structure, which will aid them in reading comprehension. A lot goes into everything your child is doing in a day,” she said.

Montessori Skillset

Ms. Mosby spoke next, to talk about the theme of independence, confidence, and risk-taking within safe parameters. “From the time the child is born, he is working on little things that develop his independence,” she explained. “Before he learns to walk he has to learn to crawl. The child continuously seeks opportunities to increase his independence through a series of natural developments and milestones. The adult’s role, the parents role, the teacher’s role—-especially in this environment—is to foster it.” It’s a well-known Montessori tenet that we should never let a child risk failure until he has a reasonable chance of success. One way this bears out in the classroom is that everything is child-sized, from all furniture to the tools and materials, and the environment is prepared by the teacher.

“Everything we set up for the child to do helps them successfully do each work. The child is allowed to manipulate all of the things we have set up.” And here is where the risk-taking can come into play. The child may not be ready for a particular work or may need another lesson on how to complete it. But the important thing is, mistakes are okay. “We don’t correct the child,” said Ms. Mosby. “We let him discover his mistake and then we’ll go back and assess it later, we don’t interrupt his concentration. What we’re working on in this stage is developing that concentration and really helping him to focus on one thing at a time, isolating one concept and then adding more and more.”

This will help get them ready for elementary, where they’ll be doing new things, encountering additional challenges, and collaborating with other children. “At this stage, she said, “they’re working with just one thing at one time by themselves. That’s why you’ll see mostly one or two seats at a table. We don’t want too many children working together because they tend to distract one another. So, allowing a child to develop skills unhindered by an adult helps to develop independence, confidence, and appropriate risk assessment. We’re watching to make sure they’re safe while at the same time giving them that ability to assess risk for themselves, make mistakes, and learn from them.”

Practical Life

Newly certified Yangyang Li spoke about the Practical Life component of the Montessori curriculum, which, she explained, comprises four areas: care of self, care of the environment, grace and courtesy, and movement of objects. She said that, “practical life connects the child to the world, to the environment. It’s also indirect preparation for math and other academics.” If a child is interested in something, she explained, “the child will concentrate on it.” She also said that children at this age want real experiences, which also cultivates concentration as well as self-motivation. “Please help me to do the work by myself,” said Li Laoshi, is the attitude they convey. All of this also develops emotional independence.

Importantly, the child uses all of the senses when engaged in a practical life work, which could be cleaning tables, sweeping, arranging flowers, or anything else that is a part of daily chores. When the instructor demonstrates a practical life lesson, as you can see in the video below, she moves slowly and deliberately, taking care to experience all of the tactile sensations, sounds, smells, and so on, and follows an orderly sequence of steps. Thanks to the parent volunteer who now understands the correct way to do some washing up!

Interconnections

Mrs. Reynolds explored how the Montessori curriculum is interconnected, from practical life to science and geography, math, and language. “The materials build upon one another, making the progression important,” she explained. “Some works isolate one skill and focus on it while others may be educating the child in multiple ways. Many of the materials are self-correcting, which also promotes independence and problem solving.”

IMG_2491

Questions and Answers

A Q&Q followed, and parents were given the chance to inquire about specific aspects. Two that brought home a lot of the concepts are reproduced here.

Parent: What are some examples of work that the child is doing on a daily basis?

Instructors: The children are all working on different things. An example might be a group of 3-year-olds having a lesson on sounding where we would go around the room have them try to pick out something that starts with a certain sound. There is a lot of preliminary work so they might be doing pouring work, cleaning work and then you might take those things away and they might start pouring their own snack or working with some food preparation. They have started making coffee for us (laughter). It’s such a caring, loving thing for them. So they’re all working on different things in all different levels. You might see a teacher on the rug giving a lesson and the other teacher will be observing other children working independently on their lessons.

Parent: One question related to independence, where do you strike a balance between letting them explore on their own and then finding out it’s not working to putting them on the right track? At what point do you reorient them?

Instructors: First of all, we’re looking at, did they choose a work they’ve actually had a lesson on because you want to make sure they have. If they haven’t had a lesson on something then we intervene and redirect. If you have given this child a lesson and they’re picking up this work and it’s becoming too playful and not purposeful work then that might be a time we might come along side them and redirect them. We are watching that. There’s a purpose for the work. Of course, if they are trying and having difficulty, that is just part of the process. If they’re throwing things or being disruptive, that’s a different story. So we have to use our judgment to determine which direction to take.

———

*Searching with the keywords “work cycle” in the search bar of this blog will bring up past years’ posts about primary workshops. They all have slightly different perspectives and are worth checking out if you are interested in learning more about Montessori education at TNCS.

Transitioning from Preprimary to Primary at TNCS

parallel-play-with-montessori-materials

These preprimary students are very excited to be working with Montessori materials at age 2!

Accommodating children from ages 2 years through 10 years (and soon to be 12 years) and ultimately comprising four programs, including preprimary, primary, elementary, and middle school, The New Century School has always focused on how to make the transition from program to program as smooth as possible for students. Continuity is built into the school’s approach, arising as a very natural consequence from its philosophy and mission. No matter what point a TNCS student starts from, he or she is headed toward the same basic goals of self-motivated inquiry and discovery as well as how to be a nice person along the way.

tiny-TNCS-tot-explores-multiple-dimensions-with-Graduated-Cylinder-Blocks

This tiny TNCS tot is exploring multiple dimensions with the Graduated Cylinder Blocks.

Perhaps the most challenging transition that TNCS students (and their parents) face is moving from the preprimary program up to the primary program when the child turns at least 3 years old. At age 2, they might well still be in diapers—still babies, practically—then, a year later, they enter a completely new milieu, with new teachers, new classmates (most of whom are older), and a whole new set of expectations. They become, in short, tiny students.

Historically, this shift has always been more difficult for the parents. The toddlers, meanwhile, accept these changes more or less in stride, even eagerly. It’s safe to say that the children’s ability to adapt so quickly and so well has a lot to do with TNCS’s very well-considered transitional process. On Thursday, February 5th, Head of School Alicia Danyali and the three preprimary teachers, Mrs. Reynolds, Lin Laoshi, and Señora Ramos held a Preprimary Workshop to walk parents through what this process entails. It was a full house; preprimary parents are clearly curious, if not anxious, about what lies ahead for their kids. Rest assured, Mrs. Danyali’s and the teachers’ presentations allayed all concerns!

The talk focused on three key aspects of the move to the primary program: 1) the differences between the two programs, 2) the necessary milestones each child must have met in order to move up, and 3) how each child is placed in one of the four primary classrooms. All of these themes are interrelated, as will become clear.

Differences Between TNCS Preprimary and Primary Programs

The two biggest differences between the programs is that the primary classroom is not a language immersion environment, and it is a classic Montessori environment. These differences start to become less striking, however, when you consider that the children are introduced to the Montessori materials as well as the Montessori teaching style of nurturing guidance the moment they step foot into the TNCS preprimary classroom. Thus, 3-year-olds will enter the primary classroom with a good deal of familiarity with their surroundings and with the manipulative materials they will be working with. And, as with the preprimary classroom, the primary classroom is specially engineered and furnished to accommodate their size. For more on how the Montessori classroom functions at TNCS, please read previous Immersed posts “Language, Math, and Science—Montessori Style!,” “Inside the Montessori Classroom,” and “Preschool Conundrum Solved: Research Demonstrates Benefits of Montessori Education.” The main point here is that Maria Montessori knew that kids need, above all else, to feel secure for optimal development; therefore, in the TNCS Montessori primary classroom, new skills are introduced when the child is ready for them, not when the calendar arbitrarily dictates.

Regarding the shift away from language immersion, that, too, is really only a partial shift. Although the class is “led” by a Montessori-trained teacher, a second teacher who speaks exclusively to the children in either Spanish or Mandarin Chinese is also always on hand. Even better, these teachers switch back and forth among the classrooms on alternating days to ensure that the primary students are now receiving exposure to and instruction in both languages.

Milestones Demonstrating that a Child is Ready for the Primary Classroom

montessori-button-frame

This TNCS preprimary student practices her fastening skills on the Montessori Button Frame. She is well on her way to independent dressing!

Some of the current preprimary students have only just turned 2. Their parents might be wondering how conceivable it really is that their child might be sharing a classroom with kids who are starting to read and write in under a year from now. In diapers in May but using the bathroom by late August? Able to don outdoor clothing independently? Able to articulate daily needs? Those are some of so many hurdles jumped for lots of kids, towering obstacles for others. These are, however, prerequisites for moving up to primary. No matter where your child falls along that continuum, the overriding message that emerged from Mrs. Danyali’s presentation was that the child will be supported and nurtured along the way to readiness. These benchmarks are not in place for ranking or comparing student achievement, by any means. They are simply necessary from an operational standpoint. The primary teacher cannot sacrifice time away from giving the very specific Montessori lessons or helping a student master a task to change diapers, for example. The primary student is able to use the bathroom and get dressed to go outdoors more or less independently (assistance and guidance are always readily forthcoming, of course, and supervision is a constant).

This might sound rather stark at first. In fact, however, the first steps toward such independence have already been taken in the preprimary classroom, where independence and competence are very tenderly fostered. The TNCS student has become a fairly autonomous classroom resident even at age 2, as Mrs. Reynold’s gorgeous photos attest (also see slideshow below). Their ability to pursue their own interests will serve them very well, academically. They are internalizing/honing the four pillars of Montessori: Concentration, Coordination, Independence, and Order. Order? Indeed. Primary students are not only expected to select an activity that they want to work with, but they are also expected to complete that work as well as put it away correctly upon completion—it’s the Montessori “Work Cycle,” and it teaches accountability and a sense of accomplishment in addition to the importance of maintaining order. All “works” are designed to absorb the child (concentration) and also to develop both large and fine motor movements (coordination).

Parents are encouraged to reinforce the expectation of independence at home as well. Children can be allowed to pour their own drinks and zip up their own outerwear, for instance. Pants with elastic waists and shoes that fasten with velcro straps can facilitate their ability to get dressed by themselves and develop their confidence with such processes. Another way parents can aid such transitioning is by considering a TNCS summer camp for primary-age students rather than a preprimary camp to give them a taste of the fun in store.

Placement in a Primary Classroom

Although not an exact science, this aspect of the transition out of preprimary is very thoughtfully undertaken. Many factors are weighed in the decision-making: your child’s proclivities, the prospective teachers’ proclivities, and the ages and genders of the current students in the class. Each Montessori classroom should have a well-rounded mix of ages 3, 4, and 5 in order to function optimally. (Please see above links for the rationale behind the mixed ages of Montessori classrooms. In short, they promote incredibly fruitful mentor–mentee relationships that continuously evolve.) The child will remain in the primary classroom for 3 years, so a “good fit” is critical. TNCS may not be able to honor specific requests in all circumstances, but your child will always be placed in a classroom environment fully devoted to addressing each student’s needs.

And Finally . . . 

Even though the advance to the primary program is made as smooth as possible, TNCS students do face transitions and changes, as all students do. The important difference at TNCS is in the thoughtful, child-appropriate way these transitions are managed. As always, parents, you are encouraged to see how it all comes together for yourself—you’ll be amazed, gratified, and reassured. Here are four great ways you can do so:

  1. Attend an Admissions Fridays event held most Fridays through the end of the school year (register here).
  2. Attend the Primary Workshop, “Four Areas of the Montessori Classroom that Unleash Your Child’s Potential” being held February 12th, 2015 from 6:00 pm–7:30 pm. (Childcare is available; sign up here by February 9th.)
  3. Read any of the related Immersed posts linked above, or simply search with keyword “Montessori” in the Immersed archives.
  4. Read Mrs. Danyali’s recommended books Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius (Angeline Lillard) and A Parents’ Guide to the Montessori Classroom (Aline Wolf).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Inside the Montessori Classroom

Many of us have at least a vague idea of what Montessori education is about and that Maria Montessori was an expert in child development and education, but some of us—even parents of Montessori-educated kids—still have questions. Or, maybe you have tried to explain Montessori education to curious friends and family members and have been met with blank stares or frank puzzlement in return.

colorful materials and inviting tableaux comprise a TNCS class layout

The Montessori classroom invites and inspires

In this post, we’ll compare a Montessori classroom to a traditional one to characterize The New Century School educational experience and gain some insight into how the classroom works, why Montessori students love learning, and why the Montessori method is so wonderful for our kids. In fact, despite obstacles (e.g., budgetary, legislative), the U.S. public educational system has begun to show the Montessori influence here and there, as educators wake up to the fact that students graduate from school and are at loose ends for how to live enriched, fulfilling lives. The traditional model has certain shortcomings that the Montessori education inherently prevents. (However, this discussion is not intended to belittle traditional education, only to investigate how Montessori can enhance learning for many by virtue of a radically different approach.)

children work independently and in groups in the smoothly functioning primary Montessori classroom

Children working independently and in groups in the smoothly functioning Montessori classroom

At TNCS, pre-primary classes (ages 2–3 years) follow the classic Montessori model; primary and elementary classrooms (ages 3–5 years and 5 years and up, respectively) use a Montessori-based approach. Classes comprise mixed age groups quite deliberately, and this is the first big difference between Montessori and traditional classrooms, in which each grade level corresponds to a single age. A vital element in Montessori education is that older children assist younger ones and that younger children not only learn from their mentors but also develop better social skills through this interaction. The older children also benefit greatly; another key element in Montessori education is consideration for others. Practicing compassion and kindness for their younger classmates teaches the older children how to conduct themselves graciously in any social milieu. Yet another advantage to mixing ages in this way is that students remain with the same teacher and many of the same children for 3 years, developing trusting, long-term bonds. The teacher also comes to know each child very well and gains an intimate knowledge of how each child best learns.

practical life materials teach kids everything from proper handwashing to garment buttoning

Practical Life materials

Another difference an observer would note immediately on entering a Montessori classroom is the room itself. Students are not seated in rows facing a teacher who is lecturing at a chalkboard as in a traditional classroom. Rather, individuals or small groups either completely independently or with the aid of the teacher are each engaged in separate activities that they have voluntarily chosen. They might be seated at small work tables or kneeling on rugs as they go about their tasks, which vary from sensorial (such as tracing sandpaper letters with their fingers) and practical-life activities (such as practicing folding towels) in the pre-primary and primary classrooms to working at computer stations at the elementary level. The point here is that students be inspired to learn by engaging in what draws them instead of required to sit passively and be lectured to. Not only will the consequent learning be deeper and richer, but the student will look forward to learning as the natural extension of his or her innate curiosity. School should not be something our kids dread, after all!

having completed work with the number rods, this child surveys his work before putting away the materials

A child in the Primary classroom works intently on the number rods

More importantly, this room for individual concentration and focus is the hallmark of Montessori education. It fulfills the child and allows him or her to become the person who intrinsically wants to help others and to make a difference in the world. Although it’s easy to imagine that a classroom full of kids each doing what he or she individually wants would be chaotic and noisy (a very common misconception), the complete opposite is true. TNCS classrooms are warm and peaceful places. The children are engaged in their work, and the atmosphere is one of pleasant, purposeful exploration. It goes without saying that passive, rote memorization–based learning has no place here. Learning is a dynamic, absorbing experience. It’s truly a marvel to see the self-discipline TNCS kids exhibit as they go about their daily work.

Yet another difference is the breadth of the classroom. TNCS extends the classroom to encompass the surrounding neighborhoods, fostering a sense of community and instilling the importance of community involvement—“our extended campus is the city.” And, for that matter, the world. TNCS has a very diverse student body, and students are encouraged to share their culture, promoting mutual respect and a broad, global perspective. Getting outside and seeing what’s going on around the school is a regular part of TNCS curriculum.

A final difference to be discussed here (though there are many more) is in the approach to “success.” AT TNCS, the product of the work done is not the focus; rather, the doing of the work is what’s important. Making mistakes and having another try is all part of the process. Students learn to relish the endeavor, of trying over and over, instead of being afraid to make those mistakes: “They welcome a challenge, and they do the work that’s required to meet that challenge. They are willing to take risks because they understand that often the most valuable learning comes when you try, fall, get up, and try again.” (This hearkens back to an earlier post on “grit”; see “Getting the Education Nitty Gritty” in Recent Posts, top right.) This also touches on another concept fundamental to the Montessori classroom—work cycles. Although Montessori methods are often criticized for not allowing imaginative “play” and focusing all on “work,” children do not make this distinction. If they are doing what they themselves have chosen to be doing, it follows that they will be enjoying it. The work cycle, though, by having a beginning (choose work), a middle (do the work), and an end (put away the work), additionally teaches them commitment, focus, and persistence. The rhythm of the work cycle has applications in all areas of daily life, not just in the classroom.

In The Absorbent Mind, Dr. Montessori wrote, “The child is endowed with unknown powers, which can guide us to a radiant future. If what we really want is a new world, then education must take as its aim the development of these hidden possibilities.” And this sums up the difference between a Montessori and a traditional classroom best. All too commonly, the traditional classroom, even at its pinnacle, can do no better than produce test-takers, albeit skillful ones; the Montessori classroom, by contrast, yields happy, inquisitive, well-rounded citizens of humanity.*

playing on the geodome on a beautiful, sunny fall dayplaying on the geodome on a beautiful, sunny fall dayplaying on the geodome on a beautiful, sunny fall day

For more information, including articles and videos, visit The Montessori Foundation’s website. And, find some hard data on the learning experience delivered by traditional versus Montessori approaches here.

*You want proof, you say? Consider this illustrious list of well-known folks, from silicon valley entrepreneurs to great chefs to princes, who were either Montessori educated or educators, and see for yourself!