School Experiences, Part 3: Montessori

This morning I visited a Montessori school. The Montessori school is 15 minutes away, easy to get to, has accessible parking, and is located in an urban area close to museums, galleries, and a university. The large brick building in which the school is located also has commercial and residential spaces within it. A majority of the students were white, but the school appeared to be more diverse racially than the Waldorf school.

Sending our 3 year old there for two mornings a week isn’t an option, and so I can’t do a direct cost comparison to our current preschool she attends two days a week. The least amount of time a student can spend in the montessori primary classroom is three mornings. If I worked it out to an hourly cost, I suspect that the price is just over twice what we pay now. Sending both of our kids there once they become elementary school aged would cost us $600 more a month than our mortgage payment, which is almost twice what the Waldorf school would cost.

I entered the school and was handed a clip board, two papers, and a pen by the secretary. She asked me to sit down and fill out the top paper that asked for basic contact information, ages of our children, where they are currently in school, and why we were interested in learning more about the school. The last question only had one and half lines of space to answer, and I probably should have just written the link to this blog. A group of four parents stood in the lobby talking about local restaurants. When I finished the paperwork, I glanced at the second, which was a very detailed sheet suggesting how I should observe (how to act, what to say to a student who attempts to engage me, and what to look for). 

The admissions director then came out, said hello, and told me we would head to the first observation. I was in a primary classroom for approximately 20 minutes. There were 17 students, working all throughout the room. They were engaged in a wide variety of activities. Some were completing puzzles, others were building with blocks, drawing, practicing writing letters, playing at a kitchen, and painting at an easel. Most students were working with at least one other student. All of them seemed engaged in their task with a freedom to change tasks or join someone on different work if they chose to. One student who was working in the kitchen approached me with a bowl of carrots she had just cut and offered one to me (note: how to respond to this offer was not on the detailed sheet!). One student got a wooden object off of a shelf and approached one of the two teachers in the room, asking, “Can you teach me a lesson on this?”

In this first classroom, one teacher was attempting to help about 6 students on different tasks simultaneously. Some times the students would sit and wait. Others would persevere through trial and error until she offered assistance. One student told the teacher three times he was ready to start the lesson but the teacher was reading math equations with another student and didn’t hear him (or heard him and ignored him). I realized how essential the teacher:student ratio is in this model and wondered if these class sizes were too big. 

In the second classroom, also a primary classroom, I could sense a different culture, which I believe is attributed to a lead teacher with a very different personality. She was almost theatrical, moving around the room using exaggerated gestures to push in chairs while singing a song about pushing in chairs. At one point, I heard a student crying. He looked as if he had just fallen from his chair onto the floor, but neither the teacher, assistant, or I saw what had happened. Neither the teacher or assistant attended to him right away. A moment later the teacher asked him why he was crying. He did not respond. She said, “If you use words, we can help you. Using words can help,” which seemed to dissolve the issue. The next time I noticed the student he was sitting at a table working with another student using blocks. A few minutes after that, a frustrated student on the other side of the room declared, “I’m not coming to school ever again!” to which the teacher responded, “Please change your attitude.” 

In general, the Montessori school was clearly doing a number of important things: fostering independence, responsibility, and honoring student interest. Students could choose their work, could complete it at their own pace, would return it to the appropriate space when finished. The admissions director explained to me the significance of the types of activities students were engaged in — but that’s not a hard sell for me. You don’t have to convince me that a three year old pouring water back and forth between two containers is learning. I get it. 

However, I found myself unable to think about this experience without comparing it to the Waldorf school yesterday. As I think about the two experiences, I have two main observations:

1) The Waldorf school philosophy (or at least how I saw it in practice) doesn’t seem to be as student-centered as I tend to prefer. I use principles of democratic education in my own teaching in which students make a large majority of the decisions about how, when, and (to a certain extent) what to learn. In the Waldorf model, the curriculum and activities, at least for the main lessons, are chosen, paced, and guided by the teacher. One could argue that this is also true in a Montessori setting (because after all there are a limited number of options students can pick from for “work”), but unlike Waldorf, students were able to work independently on something when they wanted to and for as long as they needed to. 

2) The ethic of care present and deeply felt throughout my visit to the Waldorf school wasn’t present (or at least in the ways I would expect to see it) at the Montessori school. 
The Montessori school I visited had an institutional aesthetic (lots of classrooms with blank white walls) and felt a bit unwelcoming following the previous day’s experience at Waldorf. When I was asked to sit and fill out paper work upon entrance, I felt like I was at the doctor’s office. In contrast, yesterday at the Waldorf school, the admissions director greeted me warmly, offered me tea or coffee, and asked me about my children by name based on her notes from an earlier conversation we had by phone. The admissions director at the Waldorf school sat in each observation with me, which allowed me to make comments or ask questions about what I was seeing. The admissions director at Montessori dropped me off at a classroom and picked me up. She told me the names of the teachers, but I had to ask the teachers in the first room about the ages of her students. (I also had to ask to see the art room, which she didn’t mention on our school tour).
The ethic of care I saw at the Waldorf school also extended to how teachers were treating students. When a third grade student held up an incorrect time on her interactive construction paper clock, the teacher responded with, “look at that one more time” or “this is a tricky one, isn’t it?” When one gave an answer that wasn’t exactly what the teacher was after, she said something like, “well, that was not at all what I was expecting you to say, but you’re right!” I was struck by the contrast with the second primary teacher I observed today who told a student to “change his attitude” when he said he never wanted to come to school ever again. I think I would have preferred a “why is that?” I mean, maybe the student had a really good reason!

Still to come in future posts: a homeschool coop, a meeting with the principal of our local public elementary school, and a post about a democratic free school.