Montessori Matters: Mixed Age Classrooms

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A student of mine recently asked me which of the three ages in my class I liked best. I demurred. I like them all, just for different reasons! Which naturally led to her wanting to know my reasons for liking each age. My answer?


I like the first years because they bring new eyes and new energy to the classroom. They’re excited about everything. It’s not just the classroom that’s new to them, it’s the people, the work, the teacher and the rules. The learning curve is sharp, even if they’ve been at the school their whole lives. As much as we strive for consistency, I’m a new personality to them and they’re new to me. It’s grounding¬†for them to go from being the oldest in their previous classroom to being the youngest in their new one.


My second years know the routine. They’re glad not to be new to the classroom anymore, but nothing is old yet. There’s still a lot for them to learn and be curious about. They often enjoy attacking¬†assignments or projects they did the previous year because it allows them to see how far they’ve come. And now that they’re older they can act as peer tutors to their younger brethren. They’re feeling some of the responsibility and maturity that goes hand-in-hand with all the progress they’ve made.


The third years have¬†been through the trenches¬†with me. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them learn, grow and develop in amazing ways. Often times they walk a fine line between being ready to move on and notreadynowaynotnowthanksverymuch. What’s amazing about third years is their ability to put everything they’ve learned into practical application. They do some¬†really fun stuff and, if I’ve done my job correctly, they do it under their own steam. I get to sit back and offer a little guidance here and there, provide a tool when needed, and watch it happen.

The honest truth is, my classroom wouldn’t be the same if¬†any of the age groups went missing. They’re all pieces of the puzzle that makes our classroom unique. There’s value in a classroom where¬†a first year can look at a third year and see¬†what they’ll be doing in the future. Similarly, what better way to demonstrate to a ten¬†year old how far they’ve come than to put them in the same classroom as an eight year old?

So really, truly, Susie*. I like all the ages in our class the best.

*names have been changed to protect the innocent*

Montessori Matters: Observation in the Montessori Classroom

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Symbolic GrammarObservation is one of the most important tools in the Montessori teacher’s toolbox; in any teacher’s. We observe¬†without knowing we do it. In fact, I’d argue that observation is the human condition. It’s¬†impossible to be in relationship with others without observing those around us. It helps us determine how to¬†interact with the other beings in our environment; it helps us determine how to interact with our environment. Observation has become so integral to our survival that it has become second nature.

In the MBead Frameontessori classroom, Observation tends to be more deliberate. We observe individual students, pairs, small groups and large, entire classrooms, and the whole school. Even the relationship between the students and the environment comes under our scrutiny.¬†We’re even observing ourselves. Then we take our observations a step further: we use them to individualize curriculum, adapt the classroom environment, and stop conflict before it starts.

I don’t want to make it sound like every moment of a Montessori teacher’s day is spent on high alert, but we are constantly aware. ¬†I recently saw this quote on Pinterest and identified with it immediately:

Maria Montessori built her educational beliefs on observation. In The Montessori Method, she says,

To one whose attitude is right, little children soon reveal profound individual differences which call for very different kinds of help from the teacher. Some require almost no intervention on her part, while others demand actual teaching. (52)

The only way that we can determiMap Workne these “profound individual differences” is through observation. And the only way we can decide what kind of intervention is required? Yes, you guessed it. Observation¬†again. It is the backbone of our teaching method.

Here are a smattering of observations that a Montessori teacher might make:

  • James and Nick like to chat to each other during group time. Dropper WorkThey should probably¬†sit apart.
  • No one is using the rice pouring work. It may be time to switch it out with something else.
  • Kim is struggling¬†with the “sh” sound. It might be a good idea to review the “sh” phonogram before she reads next time.

Often our observations help us to prevent problems before they even start. That’s part of the beauty of a prepared environment. We take what we learn from your children every day and use it figure out¬†how to teach¬†them.¬†

Check out my other Montessori Matters posts!

Montessori Matters: The Three Period Lesson

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We Montessori teachers like to joke about out our passion for naming things. In fact, Nomenclature Cards are a classic Montessori material. We have them for everything, from Types of Transportation¬†to Parts of an Atom. But our work with names begins before that, with something called the Three Period Lesson. Developed by √Čdouard S√©guin, and adapted by Dr. Montessori for use in the classroom, the Three Period Lesson (also known as the Three Stage Lesson) is a tool we use every day. Its purpose is to build the relationship between names and objects, symbols or qualities. For example:

We use the Three Period Lesson to introduce the shapes in the Geometric Cabinet (objects):

Geometric Cabinet from Absorbent Minds Montessori

We use the Three Period Lesson to introduce the sandpaper numerals (symbols):

Sandpaper Numerals from ETC Montessori

And we use the Three Period Lesson to teach Rough and Smooth (qualities):

Nienhuis Montessori Smooth Gradation Tablets

The Three Period Lesson is a multi-use tool–the Montessori version of a Swiss Army Knife:

In the Sensorial Activities, the Three Stage Lesson is used to teach the names of qualities and their various degrees. For Practical and Cultural Activities, it is used to introduce the names of the implements and materials the child is using. The Three Stage Lesson occurs in the Mathematics Activities when the child learns the names of symbols used to represent quantities and functions. For the language activities, it is used to help the child associate written symbols with sounds, and in certain exercises, to increase the child’s vocabulary.

Gettman, David. “Sensorial Activities.” Basic Montessori: Learning Activities for Under-fives. New York: St. Martin’s, 1987. 69-70. Print.
The Three Period Lesson–which is how I’ll refer to it, since that what¬†I learned to call it–is generally a presentation of three objects, symbols or qualities (at this point¬†I’ll simplify by assuming objects). At a minimum, for the sake of contrast, at least two objects need to be presented. Sometimes four objects will be appropriate. With elementary students, four to six objects may¬†be introduced. Working¬†with the students (giving the lesson) is our guide¬†to determining the number that best suits them.
Isolation is also key when giving a Three-Period Lesson. We present the¬†objects on an empty mat or a clear table. Similarly, we¬†keep our language simple and limited. The vocabulary we’re trying to introduce can easily become lost in extraneous explanations. With younger children, Three Period Lessons are generally one-to-one. In Elementary, teachers may introduce vocabulary individually or in small groups. In fact, I think if you were to observe a Montessori classroom, you’d see the influence the Three Period Lesson has much of our work with students, from worksheets, to our approach to error-handling.

Now that we have the foundation for the Three Period Lesson, we can begin! Again, for simplicity’s sake, I’m going to assume in further descriptions, that I’m giving a Three Period Lesson with an object.

The First Period:

  • Teacher Says and¬†Shows

The First Period is where the name and and the object are first associated. The teacher sits down with the student (beside him or her, not across) and introduces the lesson. “Today we’re going to work with some shapes.” Then, moving the object in front of the child, the teacher gives the name, repeating it clearly, enunciating each sound: “This is a triangle. Triangle. Triangle.” If the object is a sandpaper numeral or letter, the teacher should demonstrate how to trace the character; where to start and how many fingers to use. After demonstrating, the teacher can invite the child to feel the object, too.¬†These steps are repeated with each object we’re introducing in the lesson.

It’s important to note, however, that the student doesn’t have to say anything¬†during the first period. We notice spontaneous participation (such as repeating the name after we say it), but don’t require it.

The Second Period:

  • Teacher Says and Student Shows

In the Second Period, the teacher checks to see if the student has remembered¬†the connection¬†between the objects and their¬†names. Even if the student said the names during the First Period, we want to know they weren’t just parroting what¬†they heard. According to Dr. Montessori, the Second Period is the most important because it is the the “test” of knowledge (p. 157,¬†The Discovery of the Child).

To do the checking, the teacher places all of the objects presented in the First Period in front of the student. “Show me the triangle,” the teacher will say. Or, “Point to the square.” If the child doesn’t know, we have two options: Put the lesson away or go through all the objects a few times to see if this was just an accident or a true mistake. Generally speaking, our¬†knowledge of the child and our¬†instincts will help you make this decision. Remember, we’re observers and we’re watching for signs that they’re just guessing. If the errors are being made because the student is inattentive to the lesson, it’s time to set¬†the material aside. The time isn’t right! If it’s a true mistake, we know we need to put the lesson away for another day. As in all things, we must¬†make sure not to show disappointment or disapproval.

Once the student makes the connection correctly each time, shift the objects around and ask again. I like to make it into a game, asking if they think I can trick them. (I never can!)

The Third Period:

  • Teacher Shows and Student Says

If the student is successful with the Second Period, we can move on to the Third. The Third Period is the only part of the Three Period Lesson where the child is asked to speak. They might volunteer words or phrases in earlier parts of the lesson, but it’s important¬†not to require anything until now.

During the Third Period, the teacher will isolate one object from the lesson and place it in front of the student. With the object isolated, the teacher will ask the student to name it. For example, the teacher will place the circle in front of the child and say, “Tell me the name of this shape.” If the student’s pronunciation is off, we help the child. You might have them repeat the word until they can say it correctly. However, it’s worth mentioning that difficulties¬†with pronunciation and difficulties with identification can be two separate issues.

As with many tasks in the Montessori Method, repetition is important. As teachers, we may¬†give the same lesson multiple times. We may repeat the entire Three Period Lesson, or any of the three stages, depending on what we feel will benefit our students. It’s also helpful to give a short summary of the lesson, as you’ll see in the video below. When the teacher and student have completed all Three Stages of the lesson, the teacher can say, “Today, we worked with the circle,” (placing the circle in front of the child), “the triangle,” (placing the triangle next to the circle), “and the square” (placing the last shape on the table). This quick recap completes the work cycle.

To finish up this post, I have a special treat for you! MSO’s own Jenny Lang agreed to be filmed while giving a Three Period Lesson. Here’s a small sample of what¬†this integral lesson looks like:

Further Reading:

  • Homfray, Margaret. “Introducing Terminology with the Use of the Three Period Lesson.” YouTube. Skyincolor. Web. 4 Oct. 2015.
  • Lillard, Paula Polk. “The Montessori Method.” Montessori, a Modern Approach. New York: Schocken, 1972. 69-70. Print.
  • Gettman, David. “Sensorial Activities.” Basic Montessori: Learning Activities for Under-fives. New York: St. Martin’s, 1987. 69-70. Print.
  • Hainstock, Elizabeth G. “The Sensorial Situation.” Teaching Montessori in the Home: The Pre-school Years. New Updated ed. New York: Plume, 1997. 48. Print.
  • Montessori, Maria. “The Technique of the Lessons.” The Discovery of the Child. New York: Ballantine, 1972. 156-158. Print.

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Montessori Matters: The Prepared Environment

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As I¬†prepared my¬†classroom during the weeks before the beginning of school, Dr. Maria Montessori’s words about the Prepared Environment were¬†very much on my¬†mind:

‚ÄúTo assist a child we must provide him with an environment which will enable him to develop freely.‚ÄĚ

Montessori, Maria, and M. Joseph Costelloe. “The Education of the Child.” The Secret of Childhood. New York: Ballantine, 1972. 110. Print.

In fact, the classroom is as much the child’s instructor¬†as the Montessori teacher is–as the material is–and we give it as much care and attention as we might our own homes. Since the classroom is the child’s place (his second home as well as ours), we must take him into consideration as we prepare it. In keeping with the Montessori Method, there are six elements to a Montessori classroom, each¬†of which I’ll try to touch on today: Freedom, Structure and Order, Nature and Reality, the Montessori Material, Beauty, and¬†Community.



Clockwise, from left: Using a child-sized knife, a chair for the infant room, and the space for students to move freely about the classroom

In a classroom where the material¬†is both¬†accessible and appropriate, students can work and move freely. The space to move, to choose one’s own work, and the opportunity to visit the outdoors are deemed essential. If you’ve already visited a Montessori classroom, you’ll notice that the furniture is child-sized. The student’s feet can touch the ground instead of dangling in midair. Brooms fit small hands. Scissors are made for little fingers. With appropriately sized material made accessible to them, students can interact with their¬†environment.

“[T]he sense of¬†dignity acquired by the child who learns to satisfy himself in surroundings he himself preserves…these are the co-efficients of humanity which accompany “liberty of movement.” From his consciousness of this development of his personality the child derives the impulse to persist in these tasks, the industry to perform them, the intelligent joy he shows in their completion.”

Montessori, Maria. “Spontaneous Activity in Education.” The Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg, 2 Mar. 2008. Web. 5 Sept. 2015.

The emphasis we¬†place on the child’s ability to do for himself, in turn, helps with the¬†greater goal of teaching independence.

Structure and Order

Structure and Order

Clockwise, from the top: Graduated pouring work, Work grouped on a labeled sensorial shelf, Work grouped on a labeled math shelf

Montessori classrooms are also structured. This¬†is another element that allows students freedom. Work is arranged by area: Practical Life, Math, Geography, History, Science, Art, Language or Writing. This organization allows students to¬†easily access the work–and put it away again. Teachers¬†provide lessons on how to use materials when necessary, but we try to keep our instructions brief, as the experience is the thing.¬†Additionally, the Montessori teacher strives to keep the pieces of each work together¬†(with no broken or missing pieces) so the children can complete a task from start to finish. We’ve witnessed¬†the internal satisfaction a child feels when he places the last tile on the hundred board. (If, perchance,¬†a piece mysteriously goes missing–well, that’s an opportunity to teach flexibility!)

Within each area, work is arranged by level of difficulty. On a Practical Life shelf, for example, there may be three pouring works: Pouring rice from one vessel to another, then a similar activity with colored water and, finally, a more challenging pouring option involving a water pitcher and three small glasses.

Color-coding is another tool used in the Montessori classroom. When the child knows that the red sponge goes with the red tray, he can take greater responsibility for putting his work back on the shelf the way he found it.

If a material isn’t attractive to the children, the Montessori teacher will replace it¬†with something new. If that material doesn’t interest them, this cycle will repeat itself until the teacher finds the work that best fits the students’ needs.¬†Shelf work is more static and sees fewer changes at the elementary level, but the principal of attractiveness remains constant.



Clockwise, from the left: The table set for snack and tea, a lovely geography display in Room 6, and the reading nook in Room 3

Attractiveness is another important element in the Montessori classroom. Beauty invites the students and welcomes them to learn. No chintz involved–I promise! Here,¬†beauty is more closely allied with simplicity. A lack of clutter is just as important as¬†the use of natural materials like wood. Beauty invites the children to learn, just as it makes them feel welcome.

Nature and Reality

Nature and Reality

Clockwise, from the left: A successful bug hunting field trip, nature beneath our feet, and a quilt made with the botany insets

Montessori classrooms are also designed to bring the children into contact with nature and reality. Using breakable containers (like glass) allows students to learn to handle materials with greater care. Lightweight tables remind students that absentminded movements can disrupt a quiet classroom or the work of a fellow classmate.

Another way that Montessori classrooms mimic reality is by limiting the availability of each material in the room. The ability¬†to wait until a fellow student has finished with¬†a work is an invaluable life skill. It also helps to create an atmosphere of respect in the classroom. It emphasizes that each child’s work and work time is important.

Finally, we make an effort to bring the beauty of nature into the classroom by bringing in living things (plants and animals) inside and also by taking the students to experience the natural world out of doors.

Montessori Materials

Montessori Material

Clockwise, from the left: The Geometric Solids, The Stamp Game, and The Green Series

I’ll just touch on this briefly, since the Montessori materials could (and probably will) be a post in their own right. Undoubtedly, the materials are an integral part of any Montessori classroom. Here are a few brief bullet points on Montessori Materials:

  • They’re¬†designed to stimulate the student’s natural desire to learn, and to encourage concentration.
  • They¬†should have a Control of Error. That is, there should be some way for the students to see their own mistakes and have the opportunity to correct them. This allows students¬†to teach themselves.
  • There’s a Sensitive Period–a developmental “sweet spot”–for introducing each material.
  • Materials increase in complexity.
  • Materials move from concrete to abstract.
  • Many materials are designed to provide foundation for later work. An example of this is insets, which strengthen the fine motor skills necessary for¬†letter formation.



Clockwise, from the top: The community-made banner for our school’s Community Garden, Mixed ages, students helping to tidy a classroom mess, a student sharing snack with his classmate, and students helping with a school beautification project.

In Montessori schools, we encourage the students to take ownership of the classroom. It’s their space, and that means they’re involved in the care and keeping of it. This is why you’ll often see Montessori students cleaning tables or¬†even picking up trash around campus. We encourage the students to think of the school as shared space–because it is!

Caring for each other is also part of the Montessori classroom. Helping their peers comes spontaneously to most children¬†and it’s additionally¬†fostered by our mixed ages. Teaching the younger children benefits more than just those receiving the lessons. It is, after all, through teaching, that the student best reinforces what he’s¬†already learned.

As you can see, the Prepared Environment is an integral part of the Montessori teaching philosophy. As we begin our exploration of what it means to be a part of a Montessori community, I hope you’ll begin to see our vision for education.

Further Reading:

  • “The Six Principles of the Montessori Prepared Environment Explained.” – NAMC Montessori Teacher Training Blog. Montessori Teacher Training, 18 Mar. 2009. Web. 6 Sept. 2015.
  • “Montessori Classroom Approach.” American Montessori Society. Web. 6 Sept. 2015.
  • Lillard, Paula Polk. “The Montessori Method.” Montessori, a Modern Approach. New York: Schocken, 1972. Print.

Montessori Matters: A Closer Look a Montessori

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With the new school year beginning, and lots of new families joining the MSO community next week, I thought now might¬†be a good time to introduce a few tenents central to Montessori educators. If you’ve visited other Montessori schools in the past¬†or¬†your children have attended Montessori schools in other parts of the state, country (or world!), you already know what I’m about to tell you: All Montessori schools are not made equal. We share an educational philosophy, true, but as with any philosophy, how we put our beliefs into practice vary from school to school.

There are, however, universal concepts for¬†all Montessorians. If you attend the American Montessori Society Annual Conference in March, you’ll find that there¬†is¬†a common language. Practical Life is Practical Life is Practical Life. Any¬†Montessori teacher will be able to tell you¬†the importance observing her students plays in her job. If you ask her what the teacher’s goal is, she’ll probably trot out Dr. Montessori’s own quote:

The greatest sign of success for a teacher… is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.’

All of this is to say that, while there are differences, there’s a thread of commonality, too. For the curious, for the not-so-curious, for those who¬†simply stumble upon this blog by accident, I thought I could tackle some of those tenants of Montessori. Hopefully this will help demystify any terminology we teacher-types throw around¬†and help you to understand what it is we do, and what Montessori schools bring to the table.

This week, I’ll be starting with a topic most teachers can relate to this time of year: The Prepared Environment. Many of us–and certainly those of us at MSO–are preparing for the students’ return next week. Preparing the environment is very much on our minds, so it’s particularly relevant. Here’s a smattering of further topics:

  • Practical Life
  • Independence
  • Teaching the Whole Child
  • Normalization
  • Mixed Age Classrooms
  • Individualization
  • The Sensitive Periods
  • The Three-Period Lesson
  • Concrete to Abstract

If you have any requests, I’d love to hear them: