This is Part VII of the series Kindergarten Considerations in which I have been discussing (and wrestling with) the considerations behind the seemingly innocuous decision of where to send my four year old son to school. The next three posts are dedicated to a discussion of our top three options. This post looks at Montessori.
Amber from Strocel.com recently pointed out that it’s going to be impossible to find a perfect school and I know she is right. I am aware in some deep recess of my brain that I can’t be too picky. I have to be realistic. I think we all choose the best option for us, for our circumstances. The director of Rain’s preschool has also reminded me (rightly) that no matter what school we choose, it’s going to come down to the teacher whether or not it’s a good fit for him. With that said, let me warn you that in the next few posts I will be picking apart all of our options. Which isn’t to say that I won’t choose one of them in the end.
I should add my little disclaimer here that my comments about particular schooling philosophies represent my impression based on preliminary research and reflect our own family educational goals. My comments are not intended to suggest that a particular philosophy may not be the right choice for your family.
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that we were attending an info session for the local publicly run Montessori program. I went to the evening with an open mind and felt excited about checking it out. I only knew the bare minimum about Montessori. I knew that it had been around for about 100 years, that it was started in Italy by Maria Montessori and that it’s generally regarded as a very good alternative schooling program. I also knew that the children are allowed to roam freely around the room and choose materials to work with as they like. So far so good.
The first thing they did at the info session was show us this video to introduce us to the basics of Montessori education.
The learning materials and environment are intriguing and beautiful. I was encouraged by some aspects of the philosophy: the emphasis on self-directed learning and the addition of non-academic units like practical life. The staff, teachers and our local society seem sincere, dedicated and earnest.
But the reality of the program here didn’t mesh with the fairy tale in the above video. The school, a former middle school, was large and imposing. The room on the second floor, though filled with Montessori materials was utilitarian with only two windows at one end of the room, located above a 3 foot counter. I tried to imagine my son trying to see out the windows or walking to his classroom, through wide corridors and up long flights of stairs. It didn’t feel very accessible to a five year old.
In and of themselves those issues could be dealt with. It would only take a few weeks for Rain to get used to the immensity of the place. I feel more bothered by the lack of accessible windows really. But I also think back to when I would pick up my niece from Kindergarten. Everything in that whole wing of her school was kid size: tiny toilets, tiny water fountains, coat hooks at knee level, bright windows. Taylour’s kindergarten reminded me of my own and I wonder how is it that school has changed so much in the last 10 years that we no longer try to approach the child on their level?
Moving on though. My impression of the space quickly bled into my impression of the philosophy. Keep in mind that I was there in the evening so I wasn’t able to observe children in the classroom, but to me, the program felt cold. Though the video talks about how much fun the children have while they are learning, we also heard repeatedly that the children would not be playing with the materials; they would be working. This word work came up many times over the course of the evening. The program seems structured around solitary work. Sure, it’s great that the kids can work at their own pace and there is an admirable dedication to kids problem-solving. I loved looking at all the Montessori materials but I didn’t see very much opportunity to be creative, to play, to use imagination or to be artistic. For instance, the children’s books on the book shelf were about math.
What’s more is that my impression upon listening was that this devotion to letting kids work at their own pace seemed to hold a subtext of hope that your child would outpace his/her peers. I felt it like a passive aggressive form of pressure. This feeling even persisted a week later when I read an article on a local community news site that was intended to raise awareness of the program and presumably, encourage parents to consider it. The article, Is Montessori Right For Your Family, contained a rather long list of things to ask yourself to determine if your family was a good match for Montessori. It felt very much as though it was more about if we were right for them than the other way around. The whole tone of the piece seemed to subtly discourage families from considering Montessori education, and seemed to suggest that Montessori was only for certain people. In fact, at the time I read the article I was still actively considering signing Rain up for Montessori and that article certainly did make me question if we should. I wonder how many other families decided against the program upon reading it?
I know that Montessori programs around the world vary greatly in their implementation and I’m sure there are fabulous schools and not so fabulous. I’m not sure where our local school fits in that continuum. The images I’ve seen online of Montessori classrooms certainly don’t seem as cold as the ones I visited. Overall, the philosophy seems like a rich learning experience and a wonderful alternative to mainstream public schools. I love seeing multiple options available to families but in the end, I don’t think Montessori is right for us. At least not right now. At this point, I’m not ready to put my 4.5 year old in a program that seems to put so much emphasis on work and academics. In a couple of years maybe it will be perfect for us.
How about you? What’s your take on Montessori? Has your family enjoyed Montessori education? (I realise that Montessori is very well regarded and that most families love it. I’m happy to hear about your experience, positive or negative).