Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Explaining Montessori to Others

I didn't think we would get into the school room very often this weekend (a four-day weekend) because the boys' six-year-old and seven-year-old cousins were visiting.  Boy was I wrong!

Shortly before the visit, my husband told his family that we were "homeschooling" for the first time and sent some pictures.  My niece and nephew naturally saw the pictures and were fascinated by the idea of having school at home.  

I wish I could say that I "invited" the kids into the school room and gave them masterful, beautiful presentations on all of the equipment.  Unfortunately, that is not how it worked out.  Instead of being excited, as I should have been, to show the kids a "Montessori" school, I was dragging my feet.  And then, they beat me to it.

The school room is locked with one of those child-proof doorknob locks.  FYI, those work on 1 and 3 year-olds, not 6 and 7 year-olds.  The school room was consequently invaded without my knowledge the first night while I was cooking dinner.  Boy, did they think Montessori equipment was awesome!  My niece and nephew have infectious enthusiasm and energy for any activity.  They love to learn, and they love to teach.  Their joy is limitless. Consequently, it was invaded at regular intervals throughout the weekend.  Because we were out doing activities during all of the long periods of the day that were not a naptime or mealtime, this almost always happened while I was preparing a meal and I never once really got in there with them.

I think I have several new white hairs.

I consider my children to be "normalized" in the Montessori environment at this point.  You can read about the concept of normalization here, but if I were to tell you what this means to me at a very basic level I would say the following:  They roll out a rug for themselves, gently take one thing off the shelf at a time with two hands, bring it to their rug, they know how to work with that piece of equipment, they work carefully and intently with the activity for a period of time, and return the work to the shelf in the condition they took it down gently with two hands before they choose something else.  

My niece and nephew did what any kid generally does when faced with shelves full of novel "toys" and in less than fifteen minutes everything was off the shelf in piles on the floor.  When I came in my niece was stirring the cylinders for the cylinder blocks with a wooden spoon.  I know some Montessori moms and teachers know exactly how I felt at that moment, and that others have a grace and open mindedness I can only admire from a distance.

I wouldn't have expected any different because they do not go to Montessori school and would have no idea they were doing anything wrong.  This is why I was hesitant to invite them in to begin with, although I know that doing so was clearly the right thing to do.

My brother-in-law knows less than nothing about Montessori.  I say less than nothing because what little he does know probably falls into the category of the dangerous misconceptions that are created by just knowing a little bit.  For example, he overheard me say to my husband that some Montessorians would not even consider owning a toy kitchen because why have the kids play in a toy kitchen when they would prefer to, and can, do the real thing.  And my brother-in-law understandably says "Is that what Montessori is?  They don't believe in imaginative play?  That's the most valuable kind of play there is."  *Sigh*  This is why I generally want NO part in trying to "represent" the Montessori method.  There are many people who have already done that better than I can possibly do.

So, I had to choose.  I could insist that they only be in that room when I am in there, show them how to use the materials properly, enforce that, and...risk having the children and my BIL come away from the experience thinking that Montessori was restrictive, squashes all creativity, allows them use the materials a "certain way," and ruin their earnest enthusiasm for the boys' school.  Or, I could let them have at it, cross my fingers, and try to tell them to only go in there when an adult was in there and know that they would go home happy, positive, and enthusiastic and still think the school was "neat."

I went with the latter.  The explanations of why I do things the way I do them just seem to take so much wind.  In order to put up with all that talking I think the person has to really want to know "why" and in reality, most people really don't want to know that badly.  It also almost impossible to have that conversation coherently when four kids are running around completely mad with excitement.

Does anyone else find that they have a terrible time explaining what Montessori is to people who don't have experience with it?  I have tried to find a fun, family-friendly description that really gets it online, but haven't found one I've liked yet.  I have a whole file of links that together give the picture I would like, but I haven't found anything concise.  I've started a series of notes for myself with the long-term goal of writing my own if I don't find something, but that responsibility terrifies me.  On a message board I heard about a book written for parents who send their children to Montessori school called The Pink What? However, I haven't been able to get my hands on a copy.


  1. Keep me posted on that perfect description! :)

    We're considering pretty seriously sending our daughter to a local Montessori school and trying to explain why to my mom, who's a retired elementary school teacher, is challenging to say the least.

    Not that she's not open-minded but education equals something else for her than it does for me and...the conversation just devolves from there.

    New to your blog - found you via Montessori by Hand group and will definitely be back. :)

  2. I usually tell people why I choose Montessori vs traditional schooling instead of me telling what is Montessori. If they then want to know more, then I go into detail how this looks like. But you are right, it takes more than one sentence!

    Here is why I chose Montessori for my children: In a Montessori environment children learn to be self-directed and self-motivated learners who are able to problem solve and work cooperatively in groups.

  3. I struggle with this all the time! I'm convinced that my friends, and probably some of my co-workers, think I'm crazy.

    I also find that my defintion changes depending who is asking the question. For traditional teachers, I describe and explain the differences between Montessori and trad classrooms so that s/he can envision what a Motnessori class might look like and WHY it looks that way.

    Also, My Boys Teacher, thanks for your kind words on my post yesterday. I really needed a blog hug :)

  4. It is so hard to explain because it is a philosophy, not a method. Once some-one understands that they don't expect to understand it in one easy sentence! I think the self directed quote above is pretty good! Also , there is the social aspect - the child understands they are part of a community and have an effect for good or ill. It's a whole child education rather than stuffing them with information.

    I think it was Montessori herself who made the distinction between mainstream and Montessori education when she said that the mainstream sees the child as an empty vessel waiting to be filled by the teacher's knowledge, where-as the Montessorin waits for the child to reveal him/herself to the teacher through his/her works. It is the child's personality that is developed through the work and the "education" of the child is a by product.

    I've had a glass of wine so I'm not sure how clear that is but if you distill the wibble there may be some sense there!!! .....maybe!