Today Amy and I visited the Montessori Academy at Edison Lakes.

We met the administrative assistant and the executive assistant to the head of school (the person who answered my email), and then Mary McIntosh, the head of school, came to give us the tour. For some reason I wasn’t expecting the head to do that — and I liked that she did it. I told her how I used to work at Richmond Montessori, where she used to run the Montessori teacher training. This school has a teacher academy, too. She was quite pleased, and then asked me questions about the school that I couldn’t answer — I only worked summers in the extended care, so I didn’t have much contact with the regular folks.

First we visited the junior high area. The vast majority of Montessori schools are preschools, and new ones usually start with preschool and build up from there. RMS had a middle school, too. This area included a science lab, an art room, and a presentation room that are all used by elementary students as well. We were able to walk right in to the classrooms, talk briefly with the teachers, and at one point Amy “helped” a student with the work she was doing, which the student handled quite graciously. I didn’t hear a sound from either of them.

Amy also got to meet a guinea pig. Fish tank, too, in the main office area. (I know, fish and guinea pigs are common school inhabitants.) As I was asking some questions Amy was looking at the fish. A teacher walking up stopped to kneel down and talk to Amy about the fish, and then moved on.

Next we went outside and down the path to the other building, where the toddlers and early childhood classes were. The school started in a church, then moved to the building where the main office is, then added on the extension where the junior high is, then this building. There are four early childhood classes. They all had one-way glass in the windows (not just door windows, but windows onto the hall, as well) so parents and visitors could observe the classes without disturbing the students. Two are full day programs, and they occupy two large rooms connected by a door, and mingle quite a bit. One is a half day program that meets five days a week and includes kindergarten. The other is a half day program that meets three days a week, and goes from age three to age five.

(Montessori schools have multi-age groups in their classes — 3-6, 6-9, and so on. The older help the younger and thereby reinforce their own learning, and the younger learn from the older as well as from their teachers. It’s also more like family, home, and the world, to be in multi-age groups.)

By now some other parents had arrived (we were a bit early), so as the head showed us the classroom used for the teacher academy, she suggested Amy and I hang out in there while she showed the other parents what she’d already showed us. The first thing Amy noticed were the practical life shelves — trays with bowls and utensils and small things to transfer, pour, sort, and so on. One after another she tried. She didn’t do so well with the tongs, but really enjoyed watching me do them, and this evening while we were at the sink washing dishes, she was using two wooden spoons as if they were tongs. She wanted to combine items from different trays, and didn’t want to put one back to get another, but she seemed like she would adjust to that in time.

We headed out with an information packet in hand.

We think we could afford two, maybe three years. Amy could start in the three day class, and move to the five day class if / when she’s ready for kindergarten, or she could start in the five day class to begin with. That would be more expensive, since it’s more days each week, but it would be more in line with the three-year cycle idea that’s big in Montessori — having the class stay together, same kids, same teachers, same room, for three years at a time. But no one discouraged us from the first option, so at least at this school they seem to think it would be fine. They did say the three day class tended to have the younger kids — I guess the ones whose birthdays fall before the cutoff date, the ones who would be three most of the first year instead of just a few months like Amy.

We could set up an interview for Amy in January or February, with no further obligation. I can go back and observe the early childhood classes more intently and talk more with the EC director and the teachers. In February there’s an open house on a Sunday that Mark could attend with us. And in March they begin taking applications.

On the one hand, this is absolutely what I want to do. On the other, I wonder why I’m so hoity-toity that ordinary preschool (ordinary anything) isn’t good enough for my kid or for me.

It reminds me of our church search. It’s about subtlety, in part. It’s not like other schools and churches are downright evil or dangerous. And it’s not like the church or school we are looking for is going to be perfectly flawless. But the same kind of subtlety that keeps me dissatisfied with many of the churches we’ve visited, fine as they may be, makes me long to put my little one in a Montessori classroom.

Montessori is more focused on the individual AS an individual, and the child as a distinct kind of real person, than any other educational philosophy I’m familiar with.

Montessori is organized in such a way as to minimize things like rows of desks, lines in hallways and cafeterias, bathroom passes or scheduled bathroom breaks, uniform lessons for all students, and all that stuff that is necessary for most schools to function efficiently, and that can lead, subtly, to a herd mentality. Instead, Montessori is organized to be as much like a home and family as possible.

Montessori believes that children’s work is real work. There’s no such thing as busy work. There’s also no getting something done just to get it done. A child can repeat a work as often as they find satisfaction in doing so — the process matters. They have real tools to use in taking care of themselves and their environment, whether cleaning up their own spill, or preparing a snack for their classmates. The various materials they work with are very carefully and precisely designed. For example, if Fisher-Price made a toy to help kids learn about height, the various pieces would likely also differ in diameter, color, sound, etc. A set of knobbed cylinders in a Montessori classroom are all the same wood, the same diameter, and only differ in height — focusing the child’s attention on the height, and not distracting them with other things.

Montessori students have a LOT of individual choice and responsibility, with guidance from their teachers. Most materials are self-correcting — the child can tell immediately if something has gone wrong, and doesn’t need anyone’s red pen or someone hovering over their shoulder to correct them. If you pour too quickly, you might spill. There’s a little sponge provided right on the tray so you can wipe the spill. If you put the tallest cylinder in the smallest spot, it won’t fit.

Montessori is about individuals, but it’s not about selfish brats. It’s about individuals in harmony with one another. Students learn a lot about good manners, consideration, taking good care of themselves, their environment, the materials, and so on. One of the things that most impressed me about the Montessori schools I’ve worked at is the way the kids have interacted with me. They can have confident, comfortable, intelligent conversation with an adult. There isn’t that sense of us vs. them, kids vs. adults, students vs. teachers.

And, if you know me, you can imagine the sense of peace and bliss that washes over me to look at one of those Montessori classrooms and see all the neat shelves with the many materials so tidily stored, readily accessible, organized in sensible ways, self-contained, attractive. To see the children on the carpeted floor with their work on a pretty mat, and others at small tables around the room, all comfortable and engaged. One of the things Amy worked with today had beautiful golden metal bowls and a golden wooden or pasteboard round container. Another had lovely glass dishes. Another had delicate peach flowery bowls and a tiny golden ladle. Everything is neat and attractive. An orderly, accessible, sensible environment is so valuable to me. There’s nothing really wrong with throwing all the toys in one huge bin, I suppose, and yet it distresses me — it’s so much harder then to find the one toy you want, without making a mess, and it doesn’t invite you to come and play like orderly open shelves do.

I feel like my mind is already made up, and yet I need to do more work.

I need to pray.

I need to talk more with Mark.

I need to observe there again and ask more questions. I need to consider and ask about transitioning, whether it would be better to do kindergarten at the Montessori school or at the public school, since we likely can’t afford to do all of elementary at the Montessori school. (Unless I get more work… hmmm.)

I have to consider the social aspects — my willingness to not only drive Amy to school but to get together with school friends, some of whom commute from Michigan, and none currently from Plymouth or Culver; and the extent to which choosing a far-away Montessori might make me look even more of a snob to my local friends, and how that would affect our relationships, mine and Amy’s. We already have a little disconnect in that Amy is in the Plymouth school district, but most of our friends are in Culver, so perhaps it’s not that much worse than it would be already.

The commute to school itself doesn’t bother me that much right now. Think of the knitting I could get done at the local library while waiting for her! I could shop at Meijer and Target if I wanted to. I could volunteer, or perhaps get a small job at the school if they have one.

I need to go observe the local preschool(s), too, and ask questions there. I should also probably tour the public elementary school she would go to, and ask questions there as well.

I’ve often had a tendency to dream beyond my means, AND to settle for far less just because one can. I care too much about what other people will think. I am very reluctant to spend any money at all, but if I do, I want the best I can buy. Or I buy nothing, because, really, what does one need? And is wanting enough to make buying worthwhile? It haunts me even when choosing birthday presents for my three-year-old, or considering a dollar skirt at the thrift store. But I bought saffron recently. And Spice Islands ginger really does taste better than McCormick’s. Likewise for real Cheerios vs. generic.

We have some things to think about.

(Did I mention they introduce Spanish at age 3?)

(Oh, and they don’t have farm school and the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd like the other Montessori school does (but the other one doesn’t have preschool and kindergarten))


5 thoughts on “Observation(s)

  1. So, as much as I love Montessori and am still very much leaning towards it, one of the concerns I’ve always had with it is the place for creativity, imagination, and thinking outside the box. Of course there’s some place for it all, but how much? I sent an email asking — I talked about how when Amy and I were working with some dried beans and a spoon and little bowls, she was pretending they were ice cream. I asked how such a thing would be handled by her teacher. The head of school sent this in reply:

    “regarding using materials for their purpose. Some materials are more open ended than others. Also, we know that there is some pretending with the practical life – ‘ having tea ‘ with the pouring and giving the baby in doll washing a name and carrying it around in a blanket for awhile. Using the materials for something else depends on the degree the child is pretending and the respect being shown. The teachers redirect and re-teach for example when the young child starts ‘making soup with the spooning work and the pouring work’ and at some point would put limits on the use. We are more precise with the sensorial materials; allowing for explorations of sensorial comparisons, but not making a train and pushing the brown stair around the room. But if she is doing it such as you describe that she is pretending the spooning beans are ice cream in her verbalization, that sounds without our experience.”

    She said she would include the director of the early childhood program for further response to this particular thing.

    I think by “without our experience” she means that they haven’t had such a thing happen before.

    On the one hand, I agree that pretend play that is somewhat closely aligned with the material makes sense. On the other, why? Do they have something with which the child CAN pretend to make soup instead? And something else they CAN use as a train? I wonder if the making soup thing refers to putting the dried beans in the pouring water — which would obviously ruin both materials eventually. That would make sense.

  2. I don’t think it is ‘hoity toity’ at all to want what is best for your child. I think it is part of having a parent’s heart. Now that means different things to different people. Some people would only want fancy store bought new clothes whereas you sew things for Amy. Or others might want only brand new toys (large plastic ones that make noises and have flashing lights!). Of course you (and I) differ from that position. But to those people, that is wanting what is ‘best’ for their child, according to their values. I’m sure there are other examples, these are just ones that come easily to mind. I find the care and concern you have for finding the right place where Amy can flourish a wonderful example of a parent’s love. I felt that you devalued yourself by judging yourself harshly about ‘why isn’t ordinary anything good enough for my kid or for me?” I think there are a lot of things that aren’t important to you – i.e. new, name-brand clothes or the latest toys, as I mentioned above. The things that ARE important to you reveal your values, and the love you have for Amy spurs you on to find the best in those arenas. I think this is a wonderful thing and she is lucky to be part of your family.
    (I had trouble articulating this point which is why I repeated myself. I hope it came across at least somewhat clearly.)
    Education is a hard area. From preschool through college, you will find there are different approaches and alternatives and people you respect and love will hold varied and sometimes surprising opinions on them. I struggled to find my way but ultimately the right path became clear each step of the way. And I have to say that now that they are all grown (27 and 24), in retrospect I think I worried about each small step far too much. But it’s hard to see that at time time. Retrospect is wonderful – I wish I could have the benefit of it in the present, don’t you?

  3. Hi Marcy, I just stopped by and saw this post. This has been a big issue for us and I fear I have a controversial perspective, which is that “regular” education isn’t “good enough” for any children. My personal feeling is that my duty as a parent is to do my best as steward of my children and in some cases the values and norms the society and culture I find myself in are adequate and in other cases we have to think outside the box in order to do with a clear conscience the work God has given us to do as parents. (What is regular anyway? Just one group’s perspective and set of values. But there are many groups and many conflicting sets of values. And we do not have a responsibility to choose the majority view.)

    We’ve had a long and complex journey through education so far. Montesorri has never been for us, though it *is* wonderful for exactly the reasons you articulate so clearly. Finding a space in which children are valued as individuals, where they are respected as persons and encouraged to create authentic community is so vital. Institutionalization in not healthy for most people: children, old people, disabled people, etc… Public schools can absolutely get this right, and individual teachers do all the time. But sometimes finding a school that has thought this through deeply and has a commitment to it is our best chance and giving our children a healthy experience, whether its within or outside of the public school system.

    Another thing that I’ve learned to realize is that whatever a school isn’t doing, we can do. Whether its creative or academic or whatever. What’s important is that the time they spend there is healthy and positive.

    Phoebe’s closing my computer. Hope you guys are well. Happy Christmas.

  4. Thanks, Astoria. I know you were in public high school — did you go to public school all the way through or just high school?

    I go back and forth, at times, between I must do the absolutely best thing, and the hair-splitting really is that important, and whatever’s available is good enough for anyone by God’s grace — and that’s with the school issue, with the church search, with lots of things. It’s hard for me to know, sometimes, when the little things that I care about really matter that much, and they don’t. Same with evaluating what others have to say, too — like when I read theology and church stuff, or when I ask a friend about their school decisions, or whatever.

    Merry Christmas to y’all, too.

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