Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Since We're on This Topic...What To Look For in a Montessori School

Based on a series of related discussions on an internet forum I visit, I came up with the following format for evaluating Montessori schools I am visiting as I decide where M. should go to school.

Because I can't format this post the way I have things formatted on the page (I created the one double-sided page form in Publisher), I will just kind of describe the format for you. As many folks are unfamiliar with Montessori, I will also make other notes so you understand the significance of each item. All notes about formatting or significance will be in yellow.

I think when visiting Montessori schools, especially, it is helpful to have this kind of a form. The name "Montessori" is not trademarked, and any school can call itself a Montessori school, even if it has nothing at all Montessori in its approach.


(each of the following six items are short-answer items)
Name of School:
Location of School:
Notes on Financial Programs:

Notes on Teacher Training:
Experience With Children Who Have Special Needs:

Observations (each of the following have "yes" and "no" checkmark boxes underneath):

Children choosing activities themselves, having sustained focus on the activities, and caring for the classroom and materials. In a true Montessori school, this is what you would observe. During the "work period," the children will be working alone or in small groups, generally of their own choosing. Teachers are available to help students as needed, but are generally "hands off." In fact, if a child asks for help, the teacher may provide assistance, but in doing so will try to provide assistance with only the portions of the activity that the child truly can't do independently. The assistance provided will also be a springboard for teaching.

Work period close to 3 hours. A Montessori work period is generally 3 hours long, as Montessori observed this as the optimal time for children to work independently in her highly structured enviornment. During this time, children will go through various cycles of being more or less active with the materials. The children may also remain focused on just one or two work items or may work on an unlimited number of items during this time.

Children working and helping one another in a natural way (without looking for approval or praise from adults.

Older children giving lessons to the younger ones. You may or may not observe this during your visit, depending on what happens on that particular day, what the children are involved in, or how "normalized" the classroom has become. For example, at the start of the school year, you are less likely to observe this. However, it is important to note that this is a critical element of the Montessori experience for children. The classes are purposefully multi-age, and the ideal classroom has a balance between each age (for example, 6 3-year olds, 6 4-year olds, 6 5-year olds, and 6 6-year olds in a 3-5 year old classroom with 24 children).

Children solving their own disputes without adult intervention. If adult intervention is involved, please make exact notes. In the Montessori setting, children are taught conflict-resolution skills and given opportunities to use them. In my personal opinion, some classroom social behaviors DO require intervention, but the important thing is that adult intervention is not a common occurrence in the classroom for two reasons: (1) Children are being taught skills so that adult intervention is less necessary and (2) The norm for classroom behaviors reduces behavioral management issues.

Minimal behavioral management provided does not involve yelling, threatening, physical restraint, etc. Montessori teachers should be a calm, quiet presence in the classroom. I would look for behavioral management techniques that are done privately and quietly whenever possible. It is also, of course, expected that the teacher will behave in respectful, gentle ways.

An orderly, pleasant environment, with materials that are attractive, complete, and well-cared for. This is sort of the "trademark" sign of a quality Montessori school. You will walk in and there will be shelves all around the room with beautiful materials that you want to touch and get your hands on. Everything will appear orderly, and the enviornment should be warm and inviting for young people. The care taking of materials should be done by the children. You should not see adults cleaning up after children or following the children around reminding them to clean up after themselves. Instead, children will be accustomed to getting items of the shelves, using a work mat (much of the classroom will likely be floor space where the children will be working on work mats) to denote their workspace, and putting the items back after they are finished with each one.

The presence of traditional Montessori materials. Minimal “toys,” and all toys have a specific lesson-based purpose. Imaginative play is wonderful and important for children. It is not happening enough for too many children these days. However, the Montessori classroom is a playful space for focused children's work. This is why I support the idea of 5-days-per-week (for consistency...I truly believe this is better for children, in opposition to every-other-day, etc.) half-day programs for young children. I think it is important that they have a lot of time each day for open-ended, unstructured play at home. Recess is also great for kids in Montessori school. But while they are in the classroom, they will be focused and working. Not because they are forced to do so, but because they are drawn to do so by their own development in combination with the attractive nature of the materials and the prepared environment the teacher has set up. In other words, they will not be unhappy, but instead will enjoy having meaningful ways to interact with their world. If you are not familiar with Montessori materials, you might want to check out a catalog online just to familiarize yourself with the types of items you should see. For example: http://www.nienhuis.com/index.php

Child sized furniture and equipment, and materials at the children’s level, set up in orderly and accessible ways. Here is another "trademark" sign. The children's work is at their level, well organized and easy for them to access, one piece of work at a time. Ideally, all sinks, toilets, etc. are also at their level (and if they aren't, step stools or other accessibility features should be provided). You won't see desks, but you may see a minimal number of small tables at the children's levels (as well as lots of floor space for work).

Children moving about and talking to one another freely, but still respecting each other's space.
You will see children going up to the shelves, setting up their work space, working, and then returning work to the shelves. Hopefully you will see some children choosing to work together and some children choosing to work on their own (this should be a cooperative agreement made between the children based on community interest and their own interest). The children should be walking around one another's work mats. There should be a limited number of work materials so that children are encouraged to negotiate their use and interact (for example, in a class with 30 children, you might see a handful of scissors on the shelf rather than 30). Children should ask one another if they want to join in work together, and should not touch one another's work without permission from the child to whom the work belongs.

Teachers who speak quietly and respectfully to the children.

Teachers giving individual or small group lessons. In an AMI classroom, this should be the way lessons are most commonly given. There may be a "community/circle time," particularly at the close of the day, but (1) this should not be a place generally used for group lessons, and (2) this should not cut into the work period by any significant amount. In an AMS classroom, you may see circle time used for the teaching of particular lessons depending on the type of lesson. Again, however, check to make sure that this does not cut too much into the period and that children are still given many lessons individually or in small groups. Also, note that once a lesson is given, the child is free to choose that work or not. Of course, if the lessons are given when the child is properly ready, the child will likely be very interested in the new work. But the child may or may not choose this as his or her work at any given time. When the child does choose the work, the teacher will not interfere in general. You may notice children trying different ways of completing the lesson, and even making mistakes without any teacher correction, involvement, or intervention (though some items will be self-correcting or will have a "control" that allows the child to check his/her own work).

The lesson-giving generally involves little talking on the part of the teacher. In fact, it may involve little eye contact between the student and teacher. Instead, the teacher demonstrates the use of the materials and interest in the work, looking carefully at what s/he is doing, and narrating just a bit to give the students some specific information or instructions. The child during the lesson will generally watch without interfering, as the child knows the lesson can become his/her own work soon. Then the teacher returns the lesson to the shelf, and the child can choose to engage in it on his or her own.

Teachers journaling and/or actively observing the classroom in action, without taking an active role. If you observe a Montessori class over a stretch of time, you will see periods in which the teacher sits back, often off to the side, and just watches the children at work. This time should be plentiful. Many teachers keep a journal with their observations, and this can be very useful as they track what work should be introduced next to each child. In Montessori, introducing lessons at the individual child's proper point of readiness is critical. Unless a teacher is working with a student (or small group of students) on a lesson, you should see the teacher remaining on the children's level but not directly engaged in the children's work. Note that the typical classroom often includes one teacher and one or two assistants.

(the rest of the questions, aside from the last, are short answer questions)
Notes on Depth of Teacher/Administrative Understanding of the Work:
Notes on Depth of Teacher/Administrative Understanding of the Philosophy:

What is the typical daily schedule? What are drop off and pick up procedures? Often pick up and drop off will occur outside of the school, sometimes at the car with a teacher helping the child out. This demonstrates to the child confidence in his/her entry into the school. How does parent-school/teacher communication take place?

What are the clothing and personal item restrictions? Many Montessori schools will ask that children not wear clothing with cartoon or pop culture characters and/or with advertisements (such as a Reebok symbol). This limits detractions in the classroom, eliminates some social issues among children, and eliminates many inequalities in regard to clothing options for children. Also, it is nice when a school allows children to bring a photo from home into the classroom, or for young children to bring a security item. However, this should be limited, as the focus should be on the Montessori materials and the shared classroom environment.

Is the school AMS or AMI or [insert other] oriented? What is the training most common among staff? I look for schools in which the teacher is certified in the method of the school, whether AMS, AMI, or another. I also look for assistants who have some background in Montessori or who are pursuing further Montessori training. Is circle time a regular or unusual part of the class schedule?

How are lessons presented? How is a child’s progress through materials monitored?

Where does the school expect children to be at the end of the 3-6 year old period? Does the school offer Montessori for children older than six, and if so, what percentage of children continue at the school? In schools that have both a lower and an upper elementary, and even a middle or high school, it would be useful to ask the percentage of children continuing at the school at each level. However, take into consideration the local norms and other educational options available as children get older.

How does the school describe it’s approach to discipline? (Also, any concerns such as lack of boundaries placed on restraint, etc.)

Are teachers ever one-on-one with a child or class of children? In what type of scenarios? For what length of time? This is my own thing, not limited to Montessori. I think it is safest for children in teachers and staff are rarely if ever one-on-one with an adult (I don't mean working one-on-one, but rather outside the vicinty of others).

What type of scenario would signal to the teacher/administrator that Montessori or that the school is not a good fit? Are there any types of students who the teacher/administrator feels would have a harder time in the school? What type of testing is required for admission/what’s the admission criterion?

Are there any “specials” offered, and if so, how frequently and at what cost (gym, music, foreign languages, etc…)

What is the teacher turnover rate? Do staff members appear happy and satisfied by their work? What is the level of support and compensation of staff?

How does the school describe its approach to diversity? What is the classroom approach to family structure diversity (adoption, same-sex parents, multiethnic or multiracial families, etc.)? What is the current level of diversity (gender, ethnicity, race, first language, family structure, etc.) among the children, their families, and the staff:

Notes on the facility (playground, library, garden, etc.):

Notes on general sense of the school:

Overal rating (circle): 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 (10=best fit for my child)

**It is also helpful to ask for a copy of the school handbook (so I included a note on my form reminding myself to ask about this), though some schools don't give these out until a child has been admitted.


sf said...

How could you write this if your brain is not normal? Know what I mean? It's all I can do to write a few coherentish sentences.
Well, except for the books, and Pasticcio of course. . .

Masasa said...

My brilliance comes in waves ;-).

Love, SM

P.S. I was off my meds for a little while and Gina insists she didn't say this, but I distinctly heard her say I ramble more when off my meds.

Masasa said...

See. Did you spot how I just typed a name without remembering to abbreviate it?

Also, how many of these sentences are particularly coherent, really?!

Masasa said...

Plus, the EEG is physical evidence :-).