Credit: Tim Seldin, President of the Montessori Foundation
It's dark at 7:05 on this mid-winter's morning when Jeanne Saunders pulls up to the drop-off circle at the Montessori school that her three children have attended since each was two years old.
Jeanne has made this trip so often over the years that the school feels like her second home. She works downtown and typically can't leave work until after five. Her husband teaches in the local public schools and gets off much earlier. He’ll pick the children up from the after -school program by 4:30, but if he's late, he knows that they will be fine until he arrives. The school prides itself on being family-friendly, and working families appreciate its extended day and summer camp.
Teddy, Josh, and Jennifer definitely think of the school as their second family. Jennifer is one of those children who, after ten years in Montessori, speaks about her school with affection and conviction. Visitors often find her coming up without a moment's hesitation to greet them and offer a cup of coffee or campus tour. When people ask her if she likes it in Montessori, she will smile and say, "Sure, how could anyone not love it here. Your teachers are your best friends, the work is really interesting, and the other kids are like my brothers and sisters. It's a family. You feel really close to everyone."
Jennifer walks Teddy, age four, and Josh, who's seven, up to morning supervision. After dropping them off, she walks down the hill to the Upper School where she is a seventh grader. She joins two of her friends in the commons, sits, and talks quietly, waiting for her first class to start.
Teddy's morning supervision is in his normal classroom. After hanging up his coat, he walks over to Judy, the staff member in charge of his room until school officially begins at 8:30. He asks if there is anything ready to eat. Judy suggests that he help himself. He scoops out a bowl of cereal from a small bin and adds milk. He takes his morning snack over to a table and eats. Children and their parents drift into the room every so often, and gradually the number of children in the early morning program grows to about 15.
After eating his breakfast, Teddy meanders over to the easel and begins to paint with Teresa, a little girl just three, who has only joined the class over the last few weeks. They paint quietly, talking back and forth about nothing in particular. Eventually, Teddy tires of painting and deans up. He is tempted for a moment just to walk away and leave the easel messy, but he carefully cleans up and puts his materials away as he has learned from more than two years in Montessori.
At 8:30, his two teachers arrive, along with several more children. Others follow over the next: few minutes until all 30 students and two teachers quietly move about the room.
Montessori children work with hands-on learning materials that make abstract concepts clear and concrete. They allow young students to develop a clear inner image of concepts in mathematics, such as how big is a thousand, what we mean when we refer to the 'hundreds' column, and what is taking place when we divide one number by another. This approach makes sense to children.
Through this foundation of concrete experiential learning, operations in mathematics, such as addition, become clear and concrete, allowing the child to internalize a clear picture of how the process works.
Teddy and another child have begun to work together to construct and solve a mathematical problem. Using sets of number cards, each decides how many units, tens, hundreds, and thousands will be in his addend. The cards showing the units 1 to 9 are printed in green; the cards showing the numbers from 10 to 90 are printed in blue; the hundreds from 100 to 900 are primed with red ink; and the cards showing the numbers 1000 to 9000 are printed in green again, because they represent units of thousands.
As Teddy and his friend construct their numbers, they decide how many units they want, find the card showing that quantity, and place it at the upper right-hand comer of their work space. Next they go to the bank, a central collection of golden bead material, and gather the number of unit beads that corresponds with the number card selected. This process will be repeated with the tens, hundreds, and thousands.
The two addends are combined in the process we call addition. Beginning with the units, the children count the combined quantities to determine the result of adding the two together. If the result is nine or less, they simply find the large number card that represents the answer. If the addition has resulted in a quantity of ten beads or more, the children stop at the count of ten and carry these unit beads to the bank to exchange them for a ten bar: ten units equals one unit often. This process is repeated with the tens, hundreds, and thousands.
It’s about 10 o'clock now, and Teddy is a bit hungry. He wanders over to the snack table and prepares himself several pieces of celery stuffed with peanut butter. He pours himself a cup of apple juice, using a little pitcher that is just right for his small hands. When he is finished, Teddy wipes his placemat. Cleaning up his snack has put Teddy in the mood to really clean something, and he selects table washing. He gathers the bucket, little pitcher, sponge, scrub brush, towel, and soap needed and proceeds slowly and methodically to scrub a small table.
As he works, he's absorbed in the patterns that his brush and sponge make in the soap suds on the table's surface. Teddy returns everything to its storage place. When he is finished, the table is more or less clean and dry. A four year old washes a table for the sheer pleasure of the process; that it leads to a cleaner surface is incidental. What Teddy is learning above all else is an inner sense of order, a greater sense of independence and a higher ability to concentrate and follow a complex sequence of steps.
Teddy moves freely around the class, selecting activities that capture his interest. In a very real sense, Teddy and his classmates are responsible for the care of this child-sized environment. When they are hungry, they prepare their own snack and drink.
They go to the bathroom without assistance. When something spills, they help each other carefully clean things up. We find children cutting raw fruit and vegetables, sweeping, dusting, and washing windows. They set tables, tie their own shoes, polish silver, and steadily grow in their self-confidence and independence. Noticing that the plants need watering, Teddy carries the watering can from plant to plant, barely spilling a drop.
Now it's 11 :00, and one of his teachers, Ann, comes over and asks him how the morning has been going. They engage in conversation about his latest enthusiasms, which leads Ann to suggest another reading lesson.
She and Teddy sit down at a small rug with several wooden tablets on which the shapes of letters are traced in sandpaper. Ann selects a card and slowly traces out the letter d, carefully pronouncing the letter's phonetic sound: dub, dub, dub. Teddy traces the letter with his tiny hand and repeats the sound made by his teacher.
Teddy doesn't know this as the letter d; for the next year or so, he will only call it by its phonetic sound: dub. This way, he never needs to learn the familiar process of converting from the letter name d, to the sound it makes, dub. Continuing on with two or three additional letters, Ann slowly helps Teddy build up a collection of letters which he knows by their phonetic sounds.
Ann leads Teddy through a three step process. "Teddy, this is duh. Can you say dub? Terrific! Now, this is a buh (the letter b). Teddy, can you show me the dub? Can you give me the buh? Fine. Okay, what is this (holding up one of the sandpaper letters just introduced)?" Teddy responds, and the process continues for another few minutes. The entire lesson is fairly brief; perhaps 15 minutes or so. Before long, Teddy will begin to put sounds together to form simple three-letter words.
Teddy's day continues just like the morning began. He eats his lunch with the class at 11 :45, after which he goes outside with his friends to play in the snow. After lunch, the Spanish teacher comes into the room and begins to work with small groups of students. Eventually she taps Teddy on the shoulder and asks him if he would like to join her for a lesson. He smiles, but graciously declines.
He is too engaged in the project that he chosen.
In the afternoon, he does some more art, listens to selections from a recording of the Nutcracker ballet, works on his shape names with the geometry cabinet and completes a puzzle map of the United States.
When the day is over, Teddy has probably completed 20 to 30 different activities, most representing curriculum content quite advanced for someone who, after all, just turned four two months ago. But when his dad picks him up at 4:50, his response to the usual question of "What did you do in school today" is no different from many children, "Oh. I don't know. I guess I did a lot of stuff!"