Monday, September 29, 2008


Motivation is very important in a Montessori classroom. It is what inspires the children to choose a work, complete it and then choose something else. Sometimes motivation is inspired by noticing what another child has chosen, and then choosing that work when it is back on the shelf. Sometimes a child is motivated to do a certain work because something about it (whether color, shape, or whatever) catches their eye and it looks appealing. Sometimes motivation is a direct result of having attempted a work before, and wanting to do it again and get better at it.

But...sometimes motivation has to be gently crafted FOR a child. If something has sat on the shelf for weeks and has not been touched (at least by a particular child), then the teacher has a job to do. How do you convince an almost 5-year old boy that pouring beans between two jugs is fun, and that he actually wants to do it, without making it seem like he HAS to or that I WANT him to do it...? The answer, at least for this particular boy but I think it would be the case for most children, was to give him an incentive. And no, not a reward exactly. But I let him know that when he got pretty good at pouring beans, and could pour them without spilling any, he would be able to move on to other pouring activities, and eventually would be able to pour water. That did it for him, and he went right over and took the bean pouring from the shelf. Yeah!

Every child is motivated by different things, but this kind of motivation clearly works in a Montessori classroom. Knowing the reason WHY you are practicing and working to master a certain activity can definitely help, especially for those tasks that seem too easy for an older child. The right motivation certainly keeps children interested and moving ahead...

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Popular Work

There are some favorite works in our classroom, and the interest in them spreads from one child to another. The Montessori method utilizes the "horizontal learning" that children are so good at (learning by watching another child do something as opposed to learning directly from a teacher) by teaching children how to watch one another work (with permission, and with hands behind the back and mouth shut). This is the formal way to watch, but the children always notice what is being taken from the shelves and used...and they often remind each other in this way of what is available and how interesting it is!

The favorites of the classroom right now are puzzles! We have two wooden animal puzzles with about 12-15 pieces each that are challenging but do-able, and a new ABC puzzle that I have been putting out in installments (2 new letters a day...we are approaching the middle of the alphabet, and the kids are thrilled that it now requires three floor mats to complete).

Other favorites are the metal insets (individual shapes that can be traced with colored pencils and then filled in with lines or shading, and can later be combined with other shapes); putting rubber bands on a dowel; pasting; tonging cotton balls; sorting buttons and cutting paper.

Each child already has their own favorites, and that is fine. The works that they want to do are generally waiting for them on the shelves. And if somebody is using the desired work at the moment, the child is free to wait until it is back on the shelf...but usually they just choose something else. And that often lead to developing a new "favorite" work!

Montessori vs. Unschooling

It occured to me one day that the Montessori method and the method of homeschooling called "unschooling" are surprisingly similar. I had learned about unschooling in college when I researched different methods of homeschooling. It struck me as a beneficial way for children to learn (by being able to choose what, when, to what extent and for how long they learn) yet I was pretty sure I wouldn't unschool my own children. What if they grew up never wanting to learn about math, or learn to read, or (fill in the blank...)? And by establishing that they were in charge of their education, it would leave me as their worried parent with no power to teach them if they chose not to learn something. I read a number of glowing examples of children who excelled in the unschooling method, but still...not for me.

Montessori education is unschooling with structure. It gives children freedom to choose what they learn, when they learn, to what extent and for how long they learn...within the confines of a classroom. They are (at least in the preschool years, and the majority of the elementary years) limited in their choice to what is laid out for them by a competent teacher. And there is a game-plan to the Montessori method, though the children are largely unaware of it...they are led gently step by step through various interesting materials and lessons, entirely at their own pace, advancing when they are ready.

Structure is integrated throughout a Montessori classroom. The children learn how to take care of themselves and others, how to interact with each other, and how to care for the physical space they are in. They learn to respect the work of others, and to admire a job well done. There are many "rules" in a Montessori classroom, but they are not taught in a harsh no-nonsense way. They just become a part of the joy of learning- something else to be learned, and practiced, at a child's leisure. For example, note the difference in tone between a rule at a public school ("No running in the halls or you will go to the principal's office") and a Montessori school ("This is how we walk quietly at school. Do you hear a noise as I (the teacher) walk? You may practice walking quietly whenever you like, and when you think you are able to walk without making a noise you may come and ask me to listen to your feet.") The latter rule offers a challenge to a preschooler, who does often walk quite loudly, and also demonstrates the goal quite clearly.

Montessori and unschooling are both great learning methods, but Montessori takes unschooling one (large) step further by offering needed structure. As a teacher and a parent, that is a huge relief to me, and that is why I am still a huge Montessori fan.

Monday, September 22, 2008


It is amazing what good memories children have! And what a poor memory I have sometimes. This week I introduced a few new materials, one of which was the "pasting tray". I like the sound of that better than "gluing tray", but once I decide something like that, I need to get the name of it firmly into my head, as well as all the respective parts of the work. There was the container of q-tips to apply the paste, a basket of colored foam shapes to paste on, and a stack of large cardboard circles to use as a base. Also, a small tea-rest (actually, I don't know what it is called) that is meant to hold a tea-bag once it's been used. I showed the children how to put the q-tip onto the holder when they needed to put it down somewhere, so as not to get paste on the table. But I referred to the paste a couple times as "glue", and someone caught me and reminded me that it was "paste". A good reminder to me to give every part of a work a name and memorize them BEFORE I present. What a learning process this school-year is for me as well!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

New Work and some thoughts...

We are in our third week of school now, and it's been a great learning experience for the children and myself...they have kept busy with all the different activities that line the shelves, and I have kept busy showing, reminding, and insisting that the rules be followed (i.e. put your work away before choosing another, put your work on the shelf where it goes and not just the nearest open place, etc...) I've also given lessons on new work and on new ways to use old work. Sometimes, when the kids are peaceful, I will choose a work myself and find a spot to sit and relax for a minute. I often sit near a child who has not shown interest in the particular work that I am using, or has forgotten how to use it, in the hope that they will notice what I am doing and use it correctly in the future.

The power of observation is stressed for a teacher- observing the children in the classroom to determine what they are working on, what they are ready for, what is giving them trouble, etc. Much of the role of the teacher is to simply observe, and then in the future act on those observations by giving new lessons or re-demonstrating a previously given lesson. But...children are also keen observers, and that is part of the magic of a Montessori classroom. The children in a classroom are all working on different work, but at the same time they notice what their peers are working on, and also HOW they are using the materials. They rub off on each other! And I have noticed it with our school as well...all three of the children have been using many of the works on the shelf, and they all tend to gravitate toward those they are comfortable with. But, though they each have their "favorite" works, seeing someone else rush to work with a certain material is a great motivation to give it a try at some point...

Here is some new Practical Life work that we have done lately:

Above is "Using Stickers", and the purpose is simply to become familiar with peeling a sticker off a backing and sticking it onto a particular spot. I drew some lines on strips of paper, and the children try to completely cover them with stickers. I will change the sticker selection in the future, but for now I wanted it to be plain and simple. And it has been pretty popular!

Sorting button has been a favorite as well since it was put out on Monday. The buttons all begin in the middle, and one by one are sorted into the twelve surrounding areas. Not TOO challenging for the children, but it still requires a bit of thought because some of the buttons are pretty similar.

I've also introduced two dressing frames, which are intended to help the children learn to completely dress themselves. Right now we have out the "snapping frame" and the "large button frame". I will post pictures as some point, but they consist of two pieces of material in a wooden frame, connected by snaps/buttons, and a child can fasten and unfasten to get practice in these skills.

That is all for now...I will continue to post as we add more materials, and have more to share.

By the way, this is a "private" blog (i.e. only those people I have invited can read it) but if you will let me know of anyone you think SHOULD be invited to read it, I will gladly do so. I don't mind letting people read it, I am just a little wary of a complete stranger stumbling onto it and reading all about my kids...

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sensorial work is here!

I just introduced the first of the sensorial materials to the children...these are the next step after practical life, which we have been doing exclusively for the past 3 preschool sessions. Practical life focuses on the physical skills that children will need to get by in life- pouring, spooning, snapping, tying shoes, using various kitchen utensils, washing hands and brushing teeth (we may introduce this as an activity at some point, so stay posted...) While we will continue to do PL activities and add new ones as the year goes on, we will also begin with the Sensorial activities (and later Language, Math and Culture will arrive on our shelves as well).

Sensorial work is a group of activities that Maria Montessori came up with, based on her extensive work with special-needs kids in Italy, to teach children about their senses- touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste. She created materials to teach in a way that the kids couldn't help but learn (they are fun!) but could also check their work themselves and know whether they were correct or not (this is actually how ALL Montessori work functions). Today, for example, I introduced the "pink cubes" and the "brown quadrilateral prisms". And yes, that is actually the name of the work. I will try to refer to them with that name as much as possible, but I think "brown prisms" may suffice. The object is to order the cubes from largest to smallest, and the prisms from thickest to thinnest. There are various other activities to do with the cubes and prisms (such as use them both to build a "brown and pink tower", but I introduced the basics first (ordering them both horizontally and vertically). Here are some pictures:

Friday, September 5, 2008

Friday, Friday

Day #2 was fairly successful, though I think the second day of any new thing is always a little bit of a letdown. On first days everything is so new and so exciting, and the excitement always wears off a little by the second day. However, the kids did well and did work for a LONG time! They washed their hands and we began circle time with the Days of the Week and Months of the Year, and Norah seemed to be following fairly well (my kids know these songs very well, but enjoyed having something to do when the particular day/month was sung). I demonstrated how to carry a rug (with two hands, vertically) and then they were free to choose work. Again today, they all did a little of everything. Norah worked for quite a while at cutting with scissors (she told me she was going to cut all the strips in the basket, and she actually did!) and then flitted back and forth for the rest of the session. Getting a lesson is a popular thing right now, and the kids were asking for lots of lessons so they could use new works. However, I realize that I still haven't given a lesson on all the works on the shelves to each kid, so there are more lessons to come! I will continue to introduce new works slowly over the course of the year, but right now the kids are becoming acclimated to what is on the shelves.

As I said above, they worked for a long time, about 2 hours, and I think I should have stopped the work period before the time we had the last circle time they were all a little antsy. But they were still wanting to work, which is why I let it go so long. Next time, I think 90 minutes works about right, at least for now. We will work up to two work periods of 90 minutes on either side of circle time...but that is for the future. And, that is only a goal. We'll see how much work the kids can actually handle!

Norah cutting with scissors. She took over Lucy's spot from yesterday for a while this morning.
We had quite a long reading session in the middle of the work period. Gene and Lucy read to themselves, and then I read a couple books to all the kids.
Lucy having snack. We had grapes and graham crackers again, and we will probably change up snack a little bit next week (maybe raisins and graham crackers).
The control cards do make it easy. Notice there are only 5 grapes on Lucy's plate...the control card kept her from taking ALL the grapes left in the bowl, so Norah could have her snack too.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The First Day!

We had a successful first day of school today. I stayed up till all hours getting materials ready and planning out last details (I think Brendan is amazed at how much preparation I've done the last few weeks!) but it was all worth it because we had a great morning. Here is a rundown, with some pictures: We started out with "circle time"- the kids chose a carpet square and sat on it, then we talked about what day it is (Wednesday) and what month (September). We sang a song about the days of the week, and another about the months of the year, and the kids raised their hands, stood up, or wiggled their toes when we got to the particular day or month we were in. Quite fun. Then I gave them a tour of the schoolroom, and it is available for your viewing pleasure in the first few pictures. The first picture shows the whole side wall of our dining room/school room- two cabinets with a bookcase in between.

This is a view of the back wall (upon entering the room from the front door)...a table which used to be our family room coffee table with two small folding chairs for the kids to work.

The wastebasket (aka "floor mat holder") holds a number of large and small mats that the kids can spread out on the floor to define their work area.

The reading area is in the bay window seat, with a box of books for the kids to read at their pleasure.

We had our first lesson of the day after the school room tour- hand washing, a kid favorite. We trooped into our tiny bathroom where I demonstrated how to wash one's hands- a little different than my kids were used to. I stopped up the sink, put my hand in the bottom of the basin, and then turned on the water. When the water was up to my wrist, it was full enough and then I soaped up, rinsed, let out the water and dried off. The only tricky part is getting just the right water temperature...well, that will be another lesson for another day. The kids washed their hands using the new method, and then I proceeded to show them what we will be doing the majority of the time in school: the work on the shelves!

This is the left-most cabinet, which is kept open for the kids during school time.

I gave a "lesson" on some of the works on the shelves, and then the kids were free to use them as I had shown. They were so excited! Above on the left is the "toothpick jar"- a little shot glass of toothpicks to poke through the holes of a spice shaker. Everyone tried this, and I realized Norah needs to learn how to screw on a lid (or at least she had trouble with this one) so on Friday I will bring out our "containers and lids" activity". Next to it is "paper punching"- I drew some dots around the edges of construction paper squares, and demonstrated how to punch each hole and place the red dots that resulted in the tin cup. Gene got this pretty quickly, and Norah really tried but couldn't get the puncher to cooperate. She really enjoyed putting the dots that I helped her punch in the cup.

The stamping tray caught everyone's eye right away, and that is the first thing Norah chose to work on. Two little butterfly stamps, a stamp pad, and a damp sponge to wipe the stamp on when done. The paper is kept on another shelf. All three kids did this work.

I gave Gene a lesson on transferring golf balls (there are two baskets stacked on each other, and the point of the activity is to pick up one ball at a time and put it in the other basket...not hard or complicated, but a lesson in choosing only one object at a time, and following through to completion) but he quickly moved on to something else. We'll see about this activity- I think it may appeal to slightly younger children (in Montessori preschools they accept children as young as 2.5). Next is "pouring beans" and I gave a group lesson on this as well as an individual lesson to Lucy. Object is to pour the beans from one pitcher to another, without spilling any. It is an introduction to pouring that lets the kids get good at it before having to deal with water!

Spooning balls was not demonstrated today, but I personally like it. There is something very satisfying about the wooden balls fitting just perfectly in the little melon least I enjoyed it when I was putting it together!

Above left is "cutting with scissors"- there are strips of paper and some small kids' scissors, and the point is to cut pieces off the strips and put them in the small container. Lucy tried this for the first time (she watched Gene do it all last year) and cut a few little pieces off- scissors are hard when you've never used them before! She spent a lot of the time trying to keep her fingers in the right places.

These are on the top of the bookshelf, a world map puzzle and a sandpaper globe. The puzzle caught Gene's eye right away, and I gave him a lesson. I wasn't planning to put it out on the first day, but I knew it would interest him, and I wasn't sure how long his attention span would be for the first day since a lot of the works were not new to him. (We did some informal schooling over the past year). The girls, however, were sorry to hear that I wasn't going to give them a lesson on the world map puzzle today. Norah almost threw a fit over it, but I told her it could be her first lesson on Friday and then proceeded to distract her by showing her the pictures I had taken of our school day. Oh, the sandpaper globe is an introductory globe that lets the kids feel the difference between where the land and water is on a globe.
On the top shelf is "drawing with markers" and "drawing with crayons", and some art paper. I think the Montessori way of labeling works is kind of odd (and calling them "works" is too), but it makes sense when a child says "I am going to draw with markers now" instead of "I am going to use the marker basket"...I think it is an easy way for kids to learn vocabulary, and proper speech. On the bottom shelf is "hammering in clay", which was a hit for all the kids. Using a small wooden hammer, they can pound golf tees into non-hardening clay. The only tricky part was pushing the clay in to cover all the holes when they had pulled out the tees- it was a little too stiff for small fingers. We'll have to see if they get it...otherwise, we'll figure something out.
On the top right is "stringing beads" which I gave a lesson on to Norah. I don't know if she's done stringing before...she didn't want to continue once the lesson was over. On the bottom right is the snapping frame, two pieces of material with small snaps to connect the kids a chance to practice snapping when nobody (like a parent) is in a hurry! Lucy has about mastered this one already, because she is very interested in dressing herself, but Gene has never shown interest and so has no idea how to snap something. We'll see if watching the other kids do it will entice him. To the right of the snapping frame is cylinder block #1. It is a wooden block with 10 small wooden cylinders, decreasing slightly in width but all the same height. It is a perception puzzle, and teaches the kids to use their eyes to determine which is thinner or thicker, and which comes next. Nobody did this today, but Lucy and Gene have practiced a lot with this over the past year.
On the top left is a Winnie the Pooh 24-piece puzzle, which Gene has been putting together 2-3 times daily for the past week! Lucy is able to do it, but has only completed it once or twice, and Norah tried it today but it was too challenging and she lost interest quickly. To the right of the puzzle is "sewing a circle", which no one tried. On the second shelf is "building with duplos", "clipping clothespins" and the colored shapes. I guess that doesn't have a spiffy name, but it's not really an activity, just something for the kids to play with. I don't even know what I could call it...? The clothespin box wasn't used today, but I am curious to see whether Norah knows how to use a clothespin. It was a big hit with her younger sister, Kitty (who caught on very quickly), when she came over to play a few weeks ago. The point is to clip all the clothespins in the box onto the edges of the box. A satisfying work, I think.
Gene putting together the Winnie the Pooh puzzle while Norah works on stamping next to him.

Not a very becoming picture of Lucy (she kept turning away just as I would take the picture) but she used almost all the duplos to build a tower...and was done once it tipped over.

Lucy hammering in clay. She tended to work in the same spot on the floor for most of the morning.
Gene and Norah also had their respective spots. We'll see whether they continue to choose the same seating arrangements as the days go on...Gene took a turn hammering. He was proud of himself for hammering the tees until they were almost entirely in the clay, but then frustrated when he needed help getting them out. We'll see if he pounds them so hard next time.

The kids worked for about 90 minutes before I called the last circle time. They were definitely getting restless. We read a story (What Baby Wants) and played a game called Questioning, a fun introduction to grammar. I said a short sentence with a subject, verb and noun (i.e. Paul washed the dishes) and then asked questions of the kids: who is Paul, how old is he, what was he wearing, etc...when did he wash the dishes, why were they washed, where were they washed...what color are the dishes, who made the dishes dirty, are they glass or plastic... Any kid could answer, and any reasonable answer was accepted. They did well with this, and then we did a statement about dinosaurs for Norah at her request. Circle time ended with a rousing rendition of If You're Happy and You Know It and we were done. They had an hour or so of play time in the family room, lunch, and we were off to drop Norah at her house again. One full morning of school!