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!
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Why Mixed Age Classrooms?

IMG_0668One key element that you’ll find at most Montessori Schools is the mixed age classroom. Sometimes parents are curious about the reasoning behind this particular element of Montessori classrooms, so I thought I’d take a moment to discuss why Montessorians consider it an important part of our educational philosophy.

One thing that always comes up for me when I think about the importance of mixed age classrooms is the interaction between the younger and older students. Having students of different ages allows the older students to act as peer tutors to their younger classmates. In my opinion, the opportunity to act as a peer tutor is reason enough to have mixed ages. Helping younger classmates offers a myriad of benefits to older students. Helping reinforces lessons already learned. I would even argue that learning happens best while teaching. The ability to teach is also a sign of concept mastery. This means that the teacher can use peer tutor as one of his/her tools of assessment.

Additionally, peer tutoring builds self-esteem. This is true for all students, but it’s nice to have a larger age range so struggling older students can have a chance to act as peer tutors for younger ones. If the class is made up of only same-age students, the struggling student’s opportunities to help will be few and far between. With a mixed age classroom, he/she will have more of an chance to build up his/her confidence in the areas where he/she’s feeling insecure. As an added bonus, he/she’ll be receiving extra reinforcement in much-needed academic areas.

Also, I have seen many, many distracted students able to focus by helping a peer. It seems to act as a magic centering wand, rather like putting a carrot in front of horse. And if you pair an unfocused student with an unmotivated one, you may just feel like SuperTeacher. Go for it!

Younger students benefit from mixed ages, too. Since they are constantly exposed to the work of the older students, they learn from observation. Older students don’t just model behavior, but the next step in their education. This can drive the younger students and motivate them to learn.

Another important aspect of Montessori mixed age grouping is the way that it builds community. Since only a third of the class (ideally) leaves at the end of each year, there is always a core group which stays. This group acts as the heart of classroom. I have always felt that my classroom was tightly-knit. I realized this year that that is because of my mixed aged demographic. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Mixed ages aren’t the only thing that define a Montessori classroom, but they are an important element. I highly recommend you stop by your child’s classroom and see if you can’t catch one of those moments of peer tutoring. They’re truly magical.

The Importance of “Going Out”

When the child goes out, it is the world itself that offers itself to him. Let us take the child out to show him real things instead of making objects which represent ideas and closing them in cupboards.

– Maria Montessori

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Visiting the Tidepools at Carpinteria State Beach

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of “Going Out.” Going Out can be an excursion to the school’s garden for the two year-olds or a camping trip for Middle Schoolers. It is, simply, the act of bringing learning outside the classroom. It’s an exploration of the world and all the amazing things it has to offer. It’s getting to know the world outside us. It’s a learning adventure.

A field trip is the most commonly known example of Going Out, but cars, parent drivers and permission slips aren’t always necessary. Especially on MSO’s large, beautiful campus! Taking a walk around the property to get to know the school’s magnificent oak trees is Going Out. Visiting another classroom to listen to fellow students read, cloud watching as a prelude to a writing exercise, and cooking in the school’s kitchen are all ways of Going Out while staying on-campus.

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Exploring the MSO campus with our pygmy goats, Frankie and Billie.

But why is Going Out so important? Last week, the Middle School and Room 8 had a wonderful opportunity to attend a concert by the Ojai Youth Symphony. It was amazing, not just because the music was delightful, but because it gave the students a chance to see musicians their own age (they ranged from elementary to high school). They heard and saw music being performed by real people (sometimes kids!)—a very different experience from hearing it through the speakers of a car or a pair of headphones. Finally, there’s the collaborative effort of the members of the orchestra working together. It’s amazing to see how many people and instruments it takes to create one piece of music, especially a familiar one.

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Birdwatching at the Ventura Water Treatment Wildlife Ponds

If it helps, think about the child’s work in the school garden. These days, most people purchase their food at the grocery store. Even if you shop at the Farmer’s Market, that’s still removed from the original source of the food. Do you think it’s important for children to see where their food really comes from? To see how integrally it is tied to the earth and the farmer who grew it? From their experiences working in the garden, children see with their own eyes that carrots don’t come from the store. They come from the ground where a person prepared the soil, planted the seeds and cared for them until they were ready to be harvested and eaten. In the same way, the Ojai Youth Symphony concert allowed our students to see where music comes from.

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A Middle School class at the United Nations building in NYC

There are also a myriad of other important benefits to Going Out, but I thought I might mention the behavioral one. Since Montessori teachers aim to educate the whole child, we welcome opportunities to practice Grace and Courtesy. Our Social Thinking classes have helped us with the idea that different situations call for different behaviors. A field trip to a library will require whisper voices and walking. However, during our trip to the Ojai Meadows Preserve, we were outside and loud voices and running were okay as long as the students stayed within sight of an adult. The Middle School is preparing for their trip to the Montessori Model United Nations. A great deal of preparation involves learning when and how it is appropriate to speak and how to address fellow members of the assembly.

All of these points may feel obvious to us adults, but children are continually learning about the world. (Actually, my experience is that adults are, too.) Lessons learned while “Going Out” are often the ones that stick with students the longest. Think back to field trips that you took in grade school. I’m willing to bet that each one of you has at least one vivid memory that you still carry, whether good or bad.

For more information:

Exploring the Montessori Reading Program Part 1

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Pink Card–Three Letter Phonetic Words

Montessori schools teach children to read phonetically. That is, they don’t focus on names of the letters of the alphabet, but rather the sounds the letters make. When a Montessori student is introduced to “a” for the first time, the teacher calls it “ahhh” (as in “cat”). Phonetic vowels are short vowels, the ones you hear most often in three letter words: cat, pen, lip, hop, and cut. Phonetic “c” is the hard c (k) and “x” is the only letter that uses two sounds (k and s).

Once the Montessori student has mastered the sounds, he or she can begin to read phonetically. We usually start with the Pink Series–two and three letter phonetic words that can easily be sounded out. Pink series words are often known as CVC words–consonant-vowel-consonant. (They can also be CV or VCC.) This is decoding at its earliest stage. Students have begun to combine individual sounds into words that have meaning. Separately, j, e, and t are just sounds. Together, they create the mental image of a jet.

After the Pink Series, students move on to the Blue Series, where words are still phonetic but involve blends and include doubles (two f’s or words with both c and k). A blend is a combination of consonants where both sounds remain distinct. For example: flag and camp. Both of these words can be read phonetically, but they’re not CVC words anymore. They’re CCVC or CVCC. There are books for both the Pink series and the Blue, but as you can imagine, the topics are pretty limited. MSO uses BEST books along with Primary Phonics readers (I actually remember reading these as a child), and while I can’t say that they’re the most stimulating stories I’ve ever heard, but they do fit the students’ reading levels.

As you can also see from the covers, Montessori teachers introduce a few sight words, like a, the, I, go and to. Sight words are words that cannot be read phonetically. Children have to memorize them and they’re usually taught according to how often they appear in the English language. However, the Montessori method of teaching reading focuses less on memorization and more on reading through knowing the sounds letters make.

On Wednesday, we’ll explore how Montessori deals with those pesky non-phonetic letters. English is a complex language and there are more exceptions than you can shake a stick at. As Montessori teachers, we see phonetic reading as the launchpad for emergent readers. Some students are naturally sight readers, though, and we have no desire to beat them over the head with a system that doesn’t work for their brains. (We’re child-centered, remember!)

What is Child-Centered Education?

Parents often misunderstand when Montessorians use the term “child-centered education.” Since this was one of the more important concepts I took away from my teacher training, I make a special effort to make sure potential (and established!) parents understand what I mean when I’m using this term. I want to make sure that parents know that child-centered education–or child-directed or child-led–doesn’t mean letting letting kids do what they want all day, every day, so I thought it might also be helpful to clarify my thoughts here on the blog.

I believe that being child-centered allows Montessori educators unique insight into the needs of their students. By keeping careful tabs on the child’s needs, the teacher takes advantage of one of the most useful tools in her toolbox: The child’s ability to direct his or her own education. This aid is invaluable to the Montessori teacher. Since she is always keeping watch, she could not properly do her job without the direction of the child. How would she know what lesson she needed to teach next? How would she know which area needed reinforcement? When would she know that mastery was achieved and that it was time to move on? These questions cannot be answered without the aid of the child. In this way, the child leads his or her own education.

Sometimes parents ask me when their child will learn specific concepts and this, I think, is the place where the term “child-centered” really comes into play. If the parent wants to know when Johnny will learn Long Division, my answer will never be as simple as “Tomorrow” or “Next Week” or “December 13.” Our school doesn’t work that way, largely because we are child-centered. Johnny won’t learn Long Division on a set schedule. He won’t learn it until he shows me he’s ready.

Maybe that’s what it means to be child-centered? To work on a child’s schedule instead of an adult’s? Think on that and let me know…