Why Montessori?

This is a copy of a short speech I gave at a parent event at the Montessori School of Ojai. By request, I am posting it for the larger community to read. 

As a teacher, I am often asked what attracts me to Montessori education specifically and this is a question I’m certain many parents can relate to. Inquiring minds want to know: What is it about our school that sets it apart from other educational institutions? 

Why Montessori? Maria Montessori defined education as “the development of a complete human being oriented to the environment and adapted to one’s time, place and culture” (Lilliard, p. 3). This means that Montessori didn’t create an educational method so much as a philosophy; one that integrates geographical, cultural and temporal differences. Montessori education is not static; it’s vibrant and versatile.

Why Montessori? Because Dr. Montessori was a scientist, she taught us about the importance of observing the children. It is only through careful observation that we, as parents and teachers, can prepare the home and school environments to allow the children to teach themselves. Montessori reminded us that the children do the work and we are there to provide guidance and support only when our help is needed. 

Why Montessori? Because we practice being in community, on the classroom level, and school-wide. From Grace and Courtesy lessons to Service Learning projects, we practice, we learn and we explore the questions: how can we care for each other? How can we give back? 

Why Montessori? Because Montessori schools create a space where learning is both a joy and a passion. Because our students are active participants in the classroom and leave as lifelong learners.

Why Montessori? Because, as Maria Montessori said, “An education capable of saving humanity is no small undertaking: it involves the spiritual development of [humans], the enhancement of [our] value as individual[s], and the preparation of young people to understand the times in which they live” (Education and Peace).

Thank you for including us in this phenomenal undertaking.

The Montessori Classroom, Part 1


Scenes from Montessori Classrooms

Last week, I introduced The Absorbent Teacher and explained a little bit about what the term means to me. This week I thought I’d talk about another important aspect of the Montessori Method: The Classroom. Montessori classrooms are unique in many ways and, within each age group, there’s plenty of variation. Enough for me to split the subject into two posts. Today I’m tackling the commonalities across all Montessori classrooms; later in the week, I’ll get into some specifics of the specifics unique to Elementary and Middle School rooms.

One thing all Montessori classrooms strive for is a “Prepared Environment.” That is, we teachers design our classrooms so they’re suited to the children’s needs. The tables and chairs are child-sized. The work on the shelves is age-appropriate and neatly ordered. The material is realistic and made to fit in the children’s hands. This idea of a prepared environment–one that is both safe and age-appropriate–allows the children to move freely about the room. To some people, Montessori classrooms look chaotic. To Montessorians, the structured environment is what allows children to develop autonomy and self-discipline.

So what is the structure of a Montessori classroom? Good question! I mentioned that the work on the shelves is age-appropriate. Material is also grouped by subject and, usually, by shelf. This way, the children know which area of the classroom to visit when they’re looking for math, language, geography, sensorial or practical life work. For younger, preschool-age children, the emphasis is on sensorial and practical life. (Sensorial work focuses on developing the five senses: touch, taste, sight, sound and smell. Practical life work is just that: work to develop skills you use every day, like pouring, bow-tying or table-washing.) If you’ve visited an Early Childhood classroom at a Montessori school, you’re probably familiar with a few of these materials:

Clockwise, from top left: Dry pouring, sound cylinders, Color Box 3, and Knobbed Cylinders

Clockwise, from top left: Dry scooping, Sound Cylinders, Color Box 3, and Knobbed Cylinders

Another thing you’ll notice about the Montessori classroom is that the teacher is not the focal point. The teachers may have large, communal desks where they can work with students individually or in small groups, but they do not sit or stand at the front of the room. Students also have choices about where, when and how they do different works. If the child is more comfortable completing his work by standing, then by all means he should be allowed to do so. If he’s motivated by beginning the day with an inset, then that might just be the thing to get him started.

Mixed ages are also an integral part of the Montessori classroom. Allowing the older children a chance to mentor the younger students is important. It fosters learning and independence. It’s equally important that younger children have the chance to observe their older peers. Young children learn a lot by observing and experimenting, both of which are maximized by mixed age classrooms.

I couldn’t possibly cover every characteristic that makes up a Montessori classroom, but I tried to touch on those I consider essential. I’d love to hear from other Montessorians, especially any who think I missed anything crucial. In the meantime, please check back later this week for more on the Montessori classroom!

Note: This is a repost from 

Zoology in the Elementary Classroom, Part 1

It’s been a while since my last post, but I wanted to share a much-beloved work in my classroom. It’s been such a rewarding experience sharing it with my students that I wanted to share it with you. The work is part of the Montessori Zoology curriculum. First, I’d like to give you a quick look at the Zoology shelf in my classroom.

My Zoology Shelf–As you can see, I have everything color-coded in red.

First up is a hanging file with all of my research papers. I have research forms for each of the five classes of vertebrates, differentiated by level. My goal is to ultimately wean the students off the forms, but as with everything, research is a process. In this hanging file are also my forms for recording the students’ work with Animal Stories, Observations, and Vital Characteristics. I will explain more about the last two in a later post.

My research forms are sorted by groups of vertebrates and also by level. I’m a bit of a research form magpie. I pick them up when I visit other classrooms and at conferences…wherever I find them.

Next to the hanging file is my collection of Animal Stories, the work I wanted to share with you. The Animal Stories serve as the Elementary introduction to research. Students begin by reading “stories” about eight animals and matching their descriptions to their names and pictures. These stories are usually generic in nature. The animals will be “lizard” rather than “Iguana” or “butterfly” rather than “Monarch”.

As each student finishes a set, I have them follow it up by choosing two of the animals to compare and contrast. I created two versions of this form, depending on the skill level of my students. In this form, they draw the animals, name them, and list three to five facts about each. We’re always discussing the difference between a fact and an opinion, and not just with our science work.

I chose my set of animal stories after looking at many different sets. I like ETC’s because of the realistic images and the clear writing.

My set of Animal Stories is from ETC Montessori, but there are several available:

Whichever set you have, the idea is essentially the same: This work is the introduction to animal research. I feel that it’s important for students to have written work as a follow up to their Animal Stories because they’re working on a very basic skill: learning to extract information from what they read. That being said, I’ve seen some of the following options as extensions (or follow ups) to the Animal Stories:

  • Classifying the animals (vertebrates/invertebrates or any other classification groups the students desire)
  • Writing Stories

The information offered in the Animal Stories is very minimal. Often my students can offer information to add to their list of facts. This leads us into interesting discussions.

  • Does your fact apply to all spiders?
  • Is it only true of some spiders?
  • Is there anything you can think of that is true about all spiders?
  • How can you rewrite that sentence so that it allows for some spiders to be poisonous and some not?

I find, also that work with the Animal Stories is a great way to get students to slow down and think about what they know. Often–especially when they are writing to give information–they overlook the information already stored in their brain because it feels obvious.

“I don’t know what to write,” is a statement often heard in many a classroom.
“What’s one thing you remember reading about the bee?” I’ll ask.
“It only lives for about a month.”
“Did you know that before reading this?”
“Not really.”
“That might be true for other people, too. One of the reasons we write down the things we learn is to share information. How do you think you could write that on your fact sheet?”

The next step is rewriting the information in their own words. I always ask the students to cover their card or book when transcribing information. This is often a practice, and some students complain that they cannot remember the information exactly. When that is the case, we return to the information and we work on creating a mental image. Not only is a mental image key to their comprehension, but it will also help with recall and to convey what they’ve learned in their own words.

Here are few samples of student work:

This form has room for three facts. As you can see, I’m a big believer in inventive spelling. This is especially important here because it shows that the student wasn’t directly copying the information.

Older students write more facts. I also allow them to “take notes”, which can be challenging after so many years of teachers insisting they use complete sentences. But now that they know the rules they can learn about appropriate times to break them–and notes are definitely one of those times!

Drawing the animals is an integral part of the work for the students. They love doing it and are very proud when their images come out looking lifelike. It gives the students who are less confident about their writing a chance to shine.

If you are interested in the form I created as a follow-up for Animal Stories work, you can download it free on my Teachers Pay Teachers page.

Drop by again for more about Montessori Zoology!

Cosmic Education: An Introduction

As an elementary teacher, one of the things I’m most excited to implement is Cosmic Education. At the opening Philosophy class at my training center, we were lucky to have Jennifer Morgan speak and tell us her version of the First Great Lesson, the story which begins the journey through Cosmic Education. For those unfamiliar, Morgan is the author of Born with a Bang, From Lava to Life, and Mammals Who Morph, three books many Montessorians consider to be companions to the first three of the five Great Lessons.

But what are the Great Lessons? And how do they relate to Cosmic Education?

To give a simple answer to the first question, the Great Lessons are stories. In fact, that’s how we name them:

  1. The Story of the Universe
  2. The Story of Life
  3. The Story of Humans
  4. The Story of Language (sometimes this is told as two stories–the story of oral language [1] and the story of written language [2])
  5. The Story of Numbers

These five stories make up the heart of Montessori Elementary education. Each story acts as the starting point for many of the curriculum areas in the classroom:

  • The Story of the Universe: Earth Science, Physical Geography, Astronomy, and Physical Science (the study of the laws of the universe)
  • The Story of Life: 6 Kingdoms, Animal Phyla, Botany, Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Mammals
  • The Story of Humans: Early Humans, Ancient Civilizations, Fundamental Needs of Humans, all of human history
  • The Story of Language: History, Parts of Speech, names, the alphabet, etymology, writing
  • The Story of Numbers: Counting, Basic Operations, units of measurement, geometry

An Example Demonstration of the History of Numbers

This is just a sampling of where the Great Lessons might take you. In a larger sense, the function of the Lessons is to Strike the Imagination of the children, to inspire wonder for the world around them. Once that wonder has been sparked, their own natural interest drives them to learn more about the world around them. And our job as teachers is to give them the tools they need to fulfill their interest.

That’s why research is such an integral part of elementary education. Our students have questions and we empower them by giving them practice in the skills they’ll need to answer the questions on their own. There’s a famous quote about education that I find particularly fits the role of the Great Lessons:

With each Great Lesson, we kindle the fire of the children’s imagination. Through the use of storytelling and impressionistic charts, we inspire the students to ask questions; then we empower them with the ability to answer those questions.

Materials for Follow Up Work for the Story of Humans

The Lessons also encourage students to look at the interconnectivity of the universe. And, in exploring the achievements of past humans, students begin to formulate ideas of how they, in turn, might contribute.

Another Example Demonstration of the Story of Numbers

This is, in essence, the answer to the second question: What role do the Great Lessons play in Cosmic Education? While Cosmic Education and the Great Lessons are often lumped together, they are part of a larger pedagogy developed by Dr. Montessori toward the end of her life.

My Impressionistic Charts for the Story of the Universe

Dr. Montessori’s son–and many other distinguished Montessorians–have continued to expand and evolve the concept since her death in 1952.

If you are interested in exploring Cosmic Education a little more, I suggest the following books and articles:

Room 2 (Renee’s) Classroom Wishlist 2017

It’s the end of the year again! With that in mind, I asked the teachers at MSO to give me their wish lists to feature here on the blog. Today I’m showing you Renee’s wish list. It’s short and sweet–she’s a teacher who knows what she wants!

 ~~All wishlist items are linked through the images~~

Insta-Learn by Step Math Board

Renee would like the Math Step Board from Insta-Learn, pictured above. Since the Step Boards come in three different options (blank, imprinted with dots, and imprinted with numbers), the numbers are purchased separately:

Insta-Learn Math Numbers 0-25

And for use with the Step Board are problem strips of all shapes and sizes. They focus on counting, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, place value, money and time math and number sequencing.

Renee would like an assortment of these!

Tree of Life Mat from Waseca

What Montessori teacher doesn’t love Waseca?

Tree of Life

The Tree of Life from Waseca is a gorgeous, tangible way for students to explore the five kingdoms of living things. It’s easy to see how all life is connected with this work–and easy to appreciate, too!

The Montessori Services Gift Certificate speaks for itself! I think most of us would love a blank check from this wonderful Montessori supplier.

Gift Card from Montessori123

Montessori123 is another Montessori supplier! They create math, reading, physical and cultural geography material made with realistic images, a rarity among elementary material-makers. It would be difficult to choose from among the materials available from this site. I have the Math Word Problem Cards from Montessori123 in my classroom–check out my review!


SumBlox was one of the exhibitors at the AMS Conference this year. As I understand it, the blocks have infinite use. The blocks are used in conjunction with games and activities in order to teach math concepts.


Peace Corner Wish List

This wish list is quite specific. Most Montessori classrooms have Peace Tables or Peace Corners and mine is one that’s still in development. I’ve been slowly adding pieces to it, like the Buddha Board I finally splurged on, and the Zen rock garden I made myself. We keep our World Wildlife Animals in the Peace Corner, along with the yoga cards and Thich Nhat Hanh’s A Handful of Quiet: Happiness in Four Pebbles and Eline Snel’s Sitting Still Like a Frog.

Yet, I’m always on the search for those things that make a Peace Corner special. I want it to be, in Thich Nhat Hanh’s words, an Embassy of the Kingdom of Peace. And as such, it needs as many resources as it can get. To that end, I keep on looking. Recently, I found the following chart on the Pinterest board of Montessori educator Victoria deLilla:

Montessori Peace ~ Creating A Culture of Peace (click on the image to visit the Pinterest Board)

I have been using this chart to think about the areas to enhance my Peace Corner. Here’s what I’ve found:

The Children’s Peace Dance Flag from the Peace Company is my favorite among the many Peace Flag options out there. I like that it has images of children from around the world, and includes an image of the Earth.

I spotted these wooden two-handed labyrinths on someone else’s Peace Table and immediately scoured the internet to source them out. Unfortunately, they’re prohibitively expensive, even in the less attractive plastic versions (not pictured here). However, I love the idea of two children doing a labyrinth together, or connecting the right and left brains by trying to trace them with both hands. I think my students would get a kick out it too.

These cards combine a number of different practices for calming the mind. I already have yoga cards on my shelf:

Room 8 Yogis

But this card deck encourages other mindful practices, such as breathing, Brain Gym activities, and emotional intelligence.

Sand Pendulum from Amazon

Pendulums are fascinating in the way they seem to move without movement. By their very existence, they encourage stillness, and stillness encourages focus. I would love to have a tabletop pendulum like this in the classroom. My students would have to fight me for a spot in front of it!

I spotted this sweet little gem at a used book store and I regret that I didn’t snap it up. Thinking back on it, this book, along with a collection of heart stones would be a lovely addition to my Peace Corner.

The final item I’d like is small, CD-playing boombox so that students can listen to the guided meditations in Sitting Still Like a Frog or audiobooks like Zen Shorts, books with a mindful bent.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this foray into my developing Peace Corner. I’d like to close with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace Is Every Step:

“We have a room for everything–eating sleeping, watching TV–but we have no room for mindfulness. I recommend that we set up a small room in our homes and call it a ‘breathing room,’ where we can be alone and practice just breathing and smiling, at least in difficult moments. That little room should be regarded as an Embassy of the Kingdom of Peace. It should be respected, and not violated by anger, shouting, or things like that…she is safe within the grounds of the Embassy.”

Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh, p. 45