Friday, April 3, 2009

Two Very Different Schools of Thought

So Matt says that he fixed my computer, but since he also said that three days ago after turning it off and back on again, and then again after rebooting the wi-fi router, and then again after running an anti-virus program, and then again after reinstalling Windows (causing me to have to reinstall all my programs), and then again after rebooting Windows to a previous installation, I'm trying to blog really, really quickly.

Which is ridiculous, since I have a LOT to say.

There was an interesting juxtaposition of activities this week--on the one hand, the spring Parents' Evening at Will's Montessori preschool, and on the other hand, a forum for parents of prospective kindergarteners at our local public elementary school.

I'll do Montessori first, because I think there are going to be some friends who are going to be unhappy with what I say about the public school, so I'll let you get your happy vibes on before that.

So you probably know by now that Montessori classrooms do not welcome parents in on a drop-in basis--the classroom is the child's space, with important work for the child to do, and parents basically just get in the way of all the happy little elf-work. But one night a semester, Will's school has a shortened session to which parents are invited.

This is the animal stamping work. You use the animal stamps to stamp the appropriate number of times under each number--this is one of the first works that the three-year-olds are taught, which is why there are boxes to show you how many goes where. Children are always welcome, however, to do any work that they've been taught whenever they want, and repetition of easier works is something that kids find comforting, and that gives them a sense of how far they've progressed, and helps them internalize certain concepts, sort of like muscle memory for the mind. Will still does this animal stamping work about once a week.
This is a work in which you scoop different objects out of the fishbowl, sort them into separate porcelain bowls, then dump them back in the bowl and sponge up the water. It's a sorting work and a motor skills work to practice the spoon grip.
One of the things that I've found really interesting this year is that in the fall semester Parents' Night, Willow was almost entirely interested in the works that practiced pretty abstract and sometimes complicated mental skills--arithmetic, literacy, a lot of handwriting practice, some geography, calendars, stuff like that. But lately she's been almost entirely interested in the motor skills works--dipping, gripping, squeezing stuff. I've actually noticed this at home, too, in that she's far less interested in thing like mazes and math worksheets and dinosaur identification and the art that she usually loves, and she's been happiest just running around and jumping and digging and messing stuff up and helping me do housework. It's a different stage of development that she's in at the moment, I guess, and I'm very pleased that her school also supports this type of development and allows her to practice satisfying works that challenge her motor skills as well as her academic skills.

In this work you use the tool to move the little balls from the bowl to the platter and then back again. It's terrific for the scissors grip, which lefties often find a lot more challenging to learn, only I've just noticed that my own little lefty is using her right hand here. Sigh.

One of my other many favorite things about the classroom environment is that there are no pictures of kittens hanging from tree limbs or motivational posters (have you seen the site where you can make your own de-motivational posters? Rawk), but there are, instead, hanging quilts on the walls and African drums and these really lovely Japanese prints:This one is a partner work. One child wears the blindfold, and the other child hands her two swatches of cloth--velvet, burlap, cotton, etc. The blindfolded child says if they're the same or different. I think that older children might do an ordering work with this, as well--Montessori young child work is very big on teaching them to order gradations of things, like sounds from highest pitch to lowest, textures from roughest to smoothest, colors from darkest tone to lightest tone. I don't remember the exact philosophy, but it's something about heightened sensory development and deep concentration, or something: This is another sorting work, and I think might be another three-year-old work, as well. It also involves categorization, since you put the insects together, and the plants together, and animals together. Everything you need for a particular work is all together on a little child-sized tray, remember, and you can get it off the shelf and put it back as you like. There are purposefully not enough tables in the room for every single child to do a table work, however, and purposefully not enough floor space for every child to do a floor work, either, because living in a community involves recognizing that the rights of other people are as important as yours and that prior involvement takes precedence. The new thing in the middle group is that you get your first work plan. It helps give the child a well-rounded experience by asking them to, at first, complete a small number of activities in various curriculum categories chosen by themselves and by the teacher. It lets a teacher unobtrusively set a child extra time with a skill with which they might be struggling, and lets children learn goal-setting and the feeling of accomplishment. Older children get increasingly more detailed work plans and are increasingly more in charge of creating and fulfilling them, until in just a couple of years a child's work plan becomes not just a goal chart, but a daily, often hourly, sometimes more frequently-updated record of exactly what that child is doing and what they are learning and have learned at any given time--this, by the way, is a far more complete and accurate record than standardized testing, although our Montessori still participates in some standardized testing, mostly so that the children are comfortable with it after they've left the program.Practical life is also big fun. The girls both have their own brooms and dustpans and spray bottles at home, but sweeping the classroom is still awesome, apparently. Although after Will swept some dirt into the dustpan, she forgot a step and just hung the dustpan up without emptying it, spilling all the dirt right back onto the floor. Oh, well--it's one way to ensure that 30 kids all have some dust to sweep up.You can pet the class gerbils whenever you want and feed them, too, if you see that they need it, but you must ask a teacher to supervise you.For the spring Parents' Night, the children do Speaker's Rug, which is something they do weekly. A small square of carpet is passed around the circle, and when it comes to you, you may stand on the carpet and say something, or you may pass it. Will is the only kid who ALWAYS passes, because she's very uncomfortable with situations in which she isn't sure exactly what the social script is, but she sits respectfully and listens to the other children speak, and she sees that all the other kids do, too, and Speaker's Rug happens every single week like clockwork so it's something that's inevitably going to become familiar and comfortable enough that one day she WILL feel the confidence to get up and speak to her schoolmates.

I love Willow's school. And I hope that will help you see why, exactly, I hated hated HATED the forum at our local elementary school. Mind you, it's supposed to be a good school, and I've thought about that forum, and I'm thinking that (hoping that) perhaps it was just the presentation that went really wrong. Perhaps the teachers and principal COULD have said some things that I would have really liked.

Only they didn't.

What they did do...they went on and on and on about the bus schedule, randomly, in my opinion, since I'm only a PROSPECTIVE parent, and I don't yet give a flip about the bus except to know that there is one and they haven't lost a kid yet. They briefly went over the daily schedule, but it was like "We walk the circle at 8:45, then at 9:00 we have open choice, then we meet in the circle, then we go to an activity, then recess, then lunch, then nap, then reading, then science, then home." Okay...

My friend Noel asked if the kindergarteners ever interacted with the older children (hoping that they DID, you know), and all the kindergarten teachers fell all over each other reassuring all the parents that they watched their kids so closely and they only had recess and lunch with older children but there were assigned seats at lunch and five teachers at recess, etc. etc.

I asked what the teaching philosophy was regarding media exposure, particularly computer and videos, and how did that translate into classroom practice, and one (older) teacher apologized before she said that she didn't approve of five-year-olds using the computer, and then when I assured her that I perfectly agreed, some other teacher jumped in to say that every teacher's classroom was different and that SHE taught her children to properly utilize the computer right from the beginning.

One teacher made a joke that a five-year-old's attention span is about five minutes long.

Another teacher made a joke that when a parent complained to her about all-day kindergarten, she said to that parent, "Well, you can see your kid at night."

You see what I'm getting at here? A lot of this stuff is just normal for teachers to think--hell, the things I think about my students quite often is not printable in a family blog--but very little of this is what, as a prospective parent, I needed to here about the program. I needed to hear what their teaching philosophies are, what their views are on student learning styles and ranges of development, how they handle discipline and teach the kids to handle conflict, how the children are encouraged to socialize and form a community, etc.

Except that then they cut off the presentation portion so that people could fill out forms. I did manage to commandeer one last teacher to ask one last question (No, there's no foreign language curriculum, but sometimes they have a club), but then I admit that I ditched before the school tour. I used to go there a lot for a preschool playgroup, so I've seen the place.

But seriously, it could have just been a bad presentation for a good school. For instance, one of the teachers talked about how at first, the kindergarteners would spend most of their time learning that they had to wait their turn and let 20 kids go ahead of them and that they had to sit quietly and not touch each other. I was telling Matt that this pissed me off, that I did NOT think it necessary that a five-year-old have to learn these particular lessons, but Matt was all, "Of course you do. They do that same stuff at Montessori, only they tell you that it teaches community-building and respect for all people and manners. It just sounds like junk here because they're doing that stuff just to keep order, but it's still the same stuff."

And there was also this really long speech in which this one teacher talked on and on and ON about how we were all going to be so mad at her for the first couple of weeks because she would not let "her kids" leave her from the front of the school at the end of the day until they'd given her a high five and she'd made eye contact with us, because they were "her kids" and she needed to say goodbye to them and we'd just have to wait. I actually replayed this speech in my head for her, something like, "I take my role in loco parentis very seriously. My students must learn that they cannot leave my side without my permission, even to go to another trusted adult. I teach them that they must high-five me before they go to you because this keeps them from running off without supervision and because it gives me time to see you and know that they are going to an appropriate caregiver." See? That sounds way better. And if you could refer to her as your "student" and not your "kid," I'd like that, too, thanks.

I wasn't disappointed in the school, though, really, because I clearly remember the time I've spent in public schools as a student and as a teacher, and so it was never my intent to enroll my girls--when we can no longer afford Montessori, I will joyfully transition the girls to homeschooling--but I was happy that Matt, who's more ambivalent about homeschooling and who has pleasant memories of public school, got to go to this meeting. It's not quite what he remembers, I think, and he knows that we can do better without it.

I'm lying, though, because really I am disappointed. Most people can't afford the money for a fancy-pants private school or the time for full-on homeschooling, and I don't like to think about how it would have felt to have gone to that meeting and come away thinking as negatively about it as I do now, but know that my kids were going to go there, anyway.


Abby said...

this is absolutly why i moved to atlanta to teach at a progressive/private school. after doing my student teaching in a public school system i was completely freaked out. no way in hell i was going to jump through stupid hoops and be around a bunch of people who didn't even like kids anymore. now, my mom is a public school principal and works her ass off, has some great teachers, and cares deeply about her kids and community - who are mostly low income families. but she has the same reservations.

i have great regret about not putting avery in montessori when i had the chance. now i think it's too late, and don't think we could afford it for elementary school anyway. i don't know what the hell we're gonna do with him! i still have a year to think about it, but i just don't know. i have a lot of concerns. i would anyway, and with his specific learning needs, i have even more. i dunno that i'd be great at homeschooling, though. i thought i would, but i'm not as creative as you - and my patience with my own child is not what it is with someone elses child. it's something i think a lot about.

you are really lucky to have will in such a great environment, and you will be such a great homeschooling mama. can i send avery over to you? :)

cake said...

this is a great post. i want to go put cosmo's name on a waiting list at montessori, right this minute.but...well, it's saturday, and they are closed.

i too, am sad about public school. for so many reasons.

i really like matt's response to the different ways in which the same thing can be expressed. and, i love that you wrote about that.

good friends of ours had their little one in a great montessori program in houston, at a rather young age. we would hear regular reports about what went on there, and i was always so impressed. but our friends are also very critical thinkers, and would point out that what montessori is really good at is producing "good citizens." but we all agreed that the stuff they do is awesome, and we all wished we'd had that growing up. and i wish we had all those special kid-sized tools and "works." the montessori supply catalog/website is one of my guilty pleasures.

i agree that we can do better at home. and we always will, no matter what school cosmo attends. like abby, i haven't decided what we'll do when the time comes.

julie said...

Yeah, Montessori does have its problems--our school tends to be pretty white upper class on account of they offer no scholarships or income-based payment, which I have a big problem with, for the obvious reasons, and because I think it's inspired a weird mindset among the parents of the school, who are all at different degrees on an income continuum, you know?

For instance, last month for Teacher Appreciation Week the staff solicited parent/child quotes about the school, which they had printed really big and posted around. One of the quotes that's posted right by the entrance reads, "We love Montessori so much that we'd send our kids here even if we had to live on Saltines!"

Um, no. No school is worth sacrificing proper nutrition for. It's just this mindset, like we're so special because we're making this happen for our kids, not like, you know, this is a choice we made and our priority and so we're working to make it happen, but we recognize that not everybody could make it happen and also? It's not the biggest priority in the whole entire universe.

There's also, yeah, the "normalization" philosophy, which is very good citizen-y, and this is actually emphasized in the later years when the kids basically make all major decisions as a "community"--I haven't seen that in action yet, and I'd have to before I could figure out how exactly it plays out in the child's development. But I know for a fact that the normalization model doesn't work for every kid--mind you, Will's particular teacher has a pretty strict mindset about the application of the Montessori procedures, but every semester there's a three-year-old or two who doesn't make it through the first week in her class. The goodbye procedure is pretty strict, and on the second day of Will throwing an hour-long tantrum in her first week of school, the teacher actually tried to expel her because she "wasn't normalizing". Matt was so furious when I called him crying from the car because "our baby got kicked out of school!" that he left work to go scream at people, and they agreed to let her stay on for another couple of weeks. After Will had a complete turnaround two days later, though, the teacher did apologize and admit she was wrong, but there you go.

So, you know, no system is perfect, and to get into all the stuff we really love about Montessori, we consciously had to just make our peace with the stuff we didn't love. I guess with public school, I can't make my peace with the stuff I don't love about it.

Anonymous said...

It's late and I'm exhausted but I just want to say I LOVE (have for years)...and dh even has a couple of their posters especially framed for his chair's office. ;)

julie said...

That site is AWESOME!!!

Oh, and guys, we haven't even begun to talk about The Project School! It's a whole other kettle of fish.

Devona said...

I am really glad that I read this post tonight. We have an AMAZING montessori school 4 minutes from our house which I am really hoping to get my 4 year old into. But it is so expensive that I am afraid we would be eating saltines to get her in. Well, we'd at least be sacrificing any vacations or extras to send her there. Then there is the added financial stress of my 2 year old (who I wouldn't enroll until she was 4) and the third baby who is still growing inside me. How can we afford that?

But the alternatives are sending my daughter to the public school, which since we live in the inner city is not an option I'd even begin to consider. We chose our neighborhood because it is so ethnically diverse, but the schools are not. You either go to the all white school, or the all black school. Neither of which is an option for us. The Montessori school was so diverse I couldn't even name a majority or minority race and only one of the teachers was white. And that's just the cultural differences.

There are no tests at the M school, the public school is all tests and rewards. No child learns well under bribery and threats, which is all that testing and rewards are when they are so blatantly pushed on kids as they are in our school system. 2 hours of homework a night? In elementary school? Nuts.

The only hope I have is to earn the tuition in advance and pay it all up front so that we get the 5% break and be glad that there is a local public satellite school for visual and performing arts that starts in 4th grade so that we can put our children in an excellent school that aligns with our educational philosophies and doesn't cost anything. Our kids will just have to pass the audition.

Ack. So my comment has become nothing but a whine-fest, but this is keeping me up at night. And your last paragraph explained me putting my kids in public school to a T and I had to comment. I want to homeschool in theory, but my kids are really really social and even though I know that "socialization" is not a concern to homeschooling families (I am married to a well socialized former homeschool student) I know my daughter really loves her class mates and her friends at her current lame-o preschool and would miss that very much.

Thanks for letting me vent. If nothing else, your post has encouraged me to start saving this summer so we can get our girl into this school.