Is Montessori Academic? – The Last Two Months

Hello, it’s been a while!

I do apologize for the long lapse in updates.  Here is basically what happened –

Things started going well, so I stopped writing about it.

Go figure!  Is this not so typical in life, particularly the spiritual life?  Our darker, harder moments give us so much more food for thought, material for reflection, for growth.  When things are going well, it’s so easy to just start coasting.

Also, particularly in my classroom, it has been harder to write these past few months, because the things that have “been going well” are simply hard to write about!  The victories in the Montessori classroom – or perhaps in the human soul in general – are not always so grand, so entertaining, so easy to communicate with words or images.  But nevertheless they are meaningful, valuable, powerful.

What I mean:

The victories in my classroom – so far – do not have to do with reading or writing or mathematics.  Right now I do not have any readers in my classroom – or, for the most part, any children who are even ready to start reading.  (There are a few who are making great gains in their phonological awareness, but that’s about it.)

And unfortunately, those are pretty much the only milestones we are trained to look for in our schools, classrooms, children.  “Do they know their letters?  Are they reading?  Can they count to twenty?”

SO many times I have been asked if we “do academics” in the classroom, or I have overheard others explaining that “Montessori is not very academic but it is holistic.”

As if there were truly a dichotomy between the two!  (Actually one of the definitions of “academic” is “not of practical relevance; of only theoretical interest.”  Now you tell me… what is the point of that?)

I try hard not to be offended when I hear people say things like this, or when I get asked if we “do academics”, because I know it is a misunderstanding.  Not of Montessori, per se, but of life, human nature, child development.  Of education.  Of the point of it all.

In my classroom what we have been working on for the past four months, is helping the children to create order, extend their capacity for concentration, come to a sense of their own dignity and the dignity of those around them, to develop personal responsibility, and to acquire real knowledge about their environment so that they can make free choices.

Before they possess these things, what is the point of knowing their alphabet or how to count to twenty?  For you tell me: what is the reason for knowing the alphabet and how to write and read, except to be able to use language to express the life inside of you and to engage with the inner life of others?  What makes math meaningful except that it is really a revelation of the patterns and order of the universe, a discovery that 2+2=4 : not only the number, but the fact that the equation is revealing an objective reality that can be discovered?

Of course it is very practical to be able read traffic signs and grocery lists and do simple math to make sure you’re getting the proper change back at the super-market… but is this really the reason we send our kids through 15 years, sometimes more, of school?

How many of us thought school – particularly math – was so boring, and pointless?  I know I did.

And the reason for all of that is that by failing to educate the human – the mind, body, and soul of the person – we are left with meaningless academic subjects that are “boring” and seem to have no relation to real life.

So.  In my classroom, we haven’t gotten to reading and math – yet.  They will come (and when they do, from what I hear from other Montessori teachers with established classrooms, it is like an explosion of reading, writing, and math because the children are so excited about their discoveries!).  In  my classroom we are still helping these little children to experience for the first time their human dignity, to discover their souls, their inner lives – to realize they can acquire knowledge and make good choices that will aid their development.

It’s a lot of work!

But I will provide you with one short example now and hopefully many more soon to come.

When the children first walked through the classroom doors a few months ago, it was a MAD HOUSE.  Particularly where food was concerned – we provide the kids with breakfast and lunch, and we had a great ideal that the kids would prepare these meals for themselves and eat at a table with nice manners.  This was so. far. from. reality when we first started.  The first few months there was food everywhere – all over the floors, tables, hands, and the room was so loud and miserable (“give me more of that! I want more of that! Ew this is nasty!”) that we ended up just doing picnic lunches for about a month – the children were given a bag with some finger food inside and they could either eat it or throw it away.  That was that.

But we – particularly my amazing assistant, God bless her! – refused to give up on this idea of the children preparing their meals and sitting with us like dignified human beings.  So we kept pressing on, showing the children over and over again how to choose the proper dish from their cubby (plate, bowl, glass), the proper silverware, take a piece of food that was just enough so they could eat it all without wasting, how to sit down, prepare their food, and clean everything up when they are finished.

NOW our “eating” is my FAVORITE part of our classroom.  I LOVE seeing the children come in each morning, and with almost no prodding, walk over to their cubbies where their dishes are stored (they each get a ceramic plate, bowl, and glass cup that they have to take care of for the week).  They set their spot at the table – table cloth included.  They get their food (usually something they have to prepare, like peeling a boiled egg or spreading peanut butter on a piece of toast), sit at the table, and prepare their food.  They eat it with their friends (the table is limited to four children at a time).  Then, when they are finished, they wash their dishes, and put them back in their cubby, cleaning up their spot for the next person to use.  Then they proceed to the rest of their work for the day.

It is PRECIOUS to see, and so peaceful.  Here are these little human beings, preparing their own healthy food, setting their own spot at the table, sitting down peacefully for a conversation and meal with friends.  And cleaning up everything at the end – making sure that their dishes are ready for the next meal, and the spot they were using is ready for the next person.  (I also now regularly get asked, “Mrs. Ruth, what should I do with this?” if we do happen to provide paper or plastic silverware for the day – the children are concerned about throwing something away that could be cleaned and reused!)

Order. Peace. Responsibility.  Choice.  Freedom.  Community.  Love.

Now they are beginning to realize – we need things to talk about at the table!  So we are practicing conversations, learning new vocabulary, interacting with new ideas.  They are beginning to realize, “I have an inner life that I’d like to express – my friend has an inner life I’d like to know more about – the world has lots of interesting things I want to discover.”

This is what lays the foundation for writing (expressing one’s own inner life) and reading (discovering someone else’s inner life).  Otherwise it’s just arbitrary symbols and sounds that are “boring.”

So is Montessori all about letters and numbers?  No.  Letters and numbers play a big part in the classroom, but they are a means to an end.

Is Montessori academic?  In the truest sense of the word.

“…it is now absolutely imperative to give serious thought to the human side of things in order to help men themselves change for the better.  

This is the task of education.

Education today is still confined by the limits of a social order that is now past.  Education today not only is contrary to the dictates of science; it also runs counter to the social needs of our time.  Education cannot be dismissed as an insignificant factor in people’s lives, as a means of furnishing a few rudiments of culture to young people.  It  must be viewed first of all from the perspective of the development of human values in the individual, in particular his moral values, and second from the point of view of organizing the individuals possessed of these enhanced values into a society consciously aware of its destiny.  A new form of morality must accompany this new form of civilization.  Order and discipline must be aimed at the attainment of human harmony, and any act that hinders the establishment of a genuine community of all mankind must be regarded as immoral and a threat to the life of society.” Maria Montessori, “Education and Peace.” 

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Flower Arranging – another activity in “Practical Life,” developing a sense of beauty, order, and practicing fine motor skills of pouring, measuring, and cutting 
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Polishing Glass – development of order, working in a logical sequence (first this, then that), care for the environment, and indirect preparation for writing (fine motor skills)
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