Saturday, October 10, 2009

Things I Don't Know and My Search for Answers

For a bit of a change of pace today, this post is what about I've been reading rather than about teaching the boys to read.

As a Montessori Mom I've recently reached one of those "plateaus" where I feel like I am doing most of the things that I know to do to the best of my ability. I am ready to try to do some things better. This relates quite a bit to what I had to say in my post about becoming a Montessori Mom in stages and raising the bar only as it become desired and comfortable. One thing that these "plateaus" always mean for me is that I have realized anew how much I don't know.

There are many things on my list of concerns lately, all of them are related to my job as "guide" in the classroom. Just about all of my concerns fall under one of two categories. The first is mistakes and their correction, which I already blogged about briefly, and will blog about again soon. The second is properly pacing the sequence and/or coordinating the materials within and across subjects to maximum effect. I still feel like I've waited too long to present things most of the time, and wonder if materials are too advanced the other half of the time.

I have studied Montessori for 1-3 hours a day nearly every day for two years. I feel like I have reached an understanding (at least for the primary level) of most things that is at least workable. For example, I feel I am well-read in the areas of the history, philosophy, and structure of Montessori. I also feel prepared (most of the time) when giving lessons, following the child, the materials and the sequence. There still seems to be a lot about the day-to-day running of a classroom that I don't understand and haven't read about anywhere, things I need to know even though my classroom consists of only two students that happen to be my own children.

Based on some of the advice I have received in the past, it appears that many of the problems I have to overcome are considered to be the result of the small student to teacher ratio and the lack of other students modelling the work. I don't think this is pointed out to say "put them in school and you won't have that problem" I think it is meant that I need to step back and not "hover" so much because we know that children in an actual Montessori school achieve good results despite mistakes that are made when the teacher is not looking. I also think they are simply acknowledging that, yes, it is more difficult to get them interested in some materials when they are available at all times and don't have that "coolness" that comes from the anticipation of having to wait your turn to get it and seeing another kid use it.

That's great, but ultimately for all of us that home that is not going to be good enough. We will never breed fast enough to significantly change the number of students within a three-year age bracket. We are going to have to come up with some way to address the fact that color box three is sitting on the shelf, untouched, and no phantom "cool kid" is going to work with that box thereby inspiring our own child to be "just like him." We have to find a way to maximize the benefits of the extra personal attention the at-home student receives and deal with the impact this has on the method as Maria Montessori lived it.

I am also acutely aware that not all of my situations fall into the "it's because you're at home" category. It has occurred to me that the type of reading material I need right now might be titled "When Montessori Goes Wrong: All the Things That Can Possibly NOT Go According to Plan and What the Teacher Will Do and Say."

So, I hit the books again last week. An alternate title for this post could have been "My Struggle to Train Myself." Most of these were the second time through for me, but quite a few I had not read.

Since last week Monday I have read:

Angeline Lillard Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius
Maria Montessori The Absorbent Mind
Paula Polk Lillard Montessori Today
Paula Polk Lillard Montessori from the Start
Elizabeth Hainstock Teaching Montessori in the Home: The Preschool Years
Heidi Spietz Montessori at Home

Last night I read parts of: Montessori Read and Write

Still in the pile for this weekend/week are:
Paula Polk Lillard Montessori-A Modern Approach
Maria Montessori The Child in the Family
Elizabeth Hainstock The Essential Montessori

(Yes, I'm a fast reader.)

I have to say, I am completely re-inspired, excited, and totally frustrated.

First of all, I am confused as to why I found The Absorbent Mind the least helpful book of all the Montessori books I've ever read. My only explanation is that I have been reading Montessori books, blogs, message boards, and other sources every day for about two years. In that time I have been blessed to read many absolute gems of pieces written by others on these same topics already. My theory today is that while Maria Montessori was so gifted in what she created for children, but it's possible that there are others who have been more gifted than she at putting what she did into words. I often come across brilliant sentences (usually quoted in another work) but in context I just seem to lose the thread. I also find it humorous that every time any book by Maria Montessori is mentioned as a "difficult read" two other books by Maria Montessori are mentioned as better books to start with. I think I've seen every book on the "difficult" list and every book on the "easier" list several times by now.

There were a couple others books that were a bust this week. For example, I was way beyond the Heidi Speitz book, but it would be a nice read for someone just starting out. I've been through the Hainstock many times already and probably didn't need to read it again, I just wanted to make sure I hadn't missed something. I put her second book The School Years on reserve through inter-library loan though. Paula Polk Lillard's Montessori Today made me interested in reading more about Montessory elementary for 6-12.

Paula Polk Lillard's Montessori Today was the big winner this week. I really loved it and was excited and inspired by it. It was also completely depressing. It made me so excited about Montessori Elementary education. It also really drove the point home that group work is one of the linchpins in the Elementary classroom. I was really inspired by how the Montessori system from infancy to adolescence conspires to create an intrinsically-motivated human being. The book talked quite a bit about how free choice is so important in creating that and how working with the multi-aged children in their group provides the checks and balances to lead them down paths they may not have otherwise chosen and keeps them interested in all areas of the curriculum. I cannot afford Montessori school so I want to provide a Montessori education at home. However, my two boys alone will never be a "group." So now I am questioning if it is really possible to offer an elementary "Montessori" education at home at all?

Another great read is going to be Lynne Lawrence's Montessori Read & Write. I've skimmed the whole thing already and know I'm going to have to buy this one. I wish I had read it a year ago. It presents many things much clearer than in the Gettman book. The "I Spy" steps, for example, are laid out much more clearly. It gives a lot of detail that helps the at-home-teacher understand how to pace the sequence to follow your child. (Things like signs that your child may be ready for a certain material, such as beginning sandpaper letters as soon as they can do "level three" of the "sound game" and are intensely interested in touching things. It also made it clear that a child can be working with the sandpaper letters and learning about their sounds without being terribly successful at tracing in the proper order or writing in the sand tray.) It is really going to help me with my "pacing" problem. Me Too gets the short end of the stick in most things (poor second kids) but I will be able to do my job as his teacher much better the second time through.

I also really enjoyed re-reading Paula Polk Lillard's Montessori from the Start. That was a surprise because I hated it two years ago. I think it was a bit much for me as it relates to the child's first year of life. This time I basically ignored those sections and really found her "day in the life" descriptions and "scripts" of interactions between mother and child very helpful. I picked up a lot of things I can change about how I speak to the boys and their level of independence. With Me Too I've been basically doing what I used to do with Kal-El. It was fun to read about his stages again because now that I'm comfortable with what we already have implemented I can take that to a new level and try to do it even better. It also made me aware of many day-to-day activities that I am not involving them in that I could be. I'll try to post about those things as they come up.

I just found out about a book I didn't know about today, Paula Polk Lillard's Montessori in the Classroom. One of the Amazon reviews described it in this way:
A diary account of the day by day occurrences in a Montessori classroom. What is truly fascinating is the way this teacher closely observes the children and know when (and when not) to help and give assistance. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is confused about how the Montessori classroom operates.
I think that bodes well because it is the diary-like segments of Lillard's books that I found so helpful and inspiring this week. I hope there is not too much overlap between that book and the diary chapter that is included in Montessori Today. I also hope that what I read can be tailored to fit home use. It seemed clear in Montessori Today that in the classroom each child was spending some time every day doing math and language activities in addition to any other "projects" they might be doing. At the same time, the book heavily emphasized that the children always chose their own activities. No where is explained how and why this happens. I hope that I can find some more answers in Montessori in the Classroom.

I am very excited about the video series of lectures by Margaret Homfray that I just heard about this week from The Wonder Years and Walk Beside Me. It seems that there are at least 23 videos in the series and each video is between 30 minutes to one hour long. Who knows, maybe after watching those I'll find what I need. It makes me wonder what else is out there on you tube and elsewhere that might be helpful. (I already have watched many of the Tami Elliot Expert Village videos.)

I am also wondering what I might find if I looked through back-issues of the NAMTA journal. I haven't had a lot of luck with the Montessori Teacher Training blog. There are probably some posts in there that may address the things I need to learn about, but I can't find them in-between the articles about dancing around maypoles and how the druids studied trees.

At the same time, I am already thinking about the possibility that the things that I don't know about Montessori are things that are just not written down anywhere. If that turns out to be the case, I can only imagine that these things are learned in teacher training. (Although I'm skeptical, because I know that non-Montessori teachers learn to teach by teaching and from other teachers, not in school.) So I am trying to come up with ways to learn the things that are not in the literature, and not in the albums.

What if I became trained? I obviously cannot go through traditional teacher training without stopping the teaching that I'm doing. Sending the boys to school so I can learn to teach them at home just doesn't make sense. I know there are online courses, but I am concerned that an online course will essentially be a duplication of the work I have already done. I could wind up spending a lot of money to re-read books I have already read, acquire yet another set of teacher albums, and still not answer the questions that I need answered to apply this method at home to the best of my ability.

My next thought was, "well, maybe I should go to teacher convention." Boy, that is not as easy as it should be! I've been to plenty of teacher conventions. I've always had more than one local choice at different times of year. In my former field, if I were willing to travel, I could find lectures or conferences to hear any month I wanted.

I looked online at my local Montessori training facility. They offer their regular training program and that is it. A multi-summer version and the usual. No teacher "refresher courses," no lecture series, no conferences. If I want to spend $1000 I could travel to California and stay in a hotel and attend the national conference this November (that includes the convention fee and hotel stay, but not even airfare). The last time I attended a convention it was $120 and was local. I can't afford $1000 and was really dismayed at article that Katherine Von Duyke wrote about doing exactly that. Apparently she wasn't very welcome. It is hard for me to imagine the experience that she had. There are Montessori teachers with whom I communicate "online" that I really consider "friends" even though I have never met them. They have never been anything but absolutely and unselfishly generous with their knowledge.

I apologize in advance for any undue strangeness in this post. As I was writing this I blanched and froze a half-gallon of eggplant, a gallon of carrots, a gallon of red and green peppers, and a gallon of cauliflower. I may just be in a vegetable induced haze. I'm sure there are many of you out there who have answers, many who think I'm crazy, many who are feeling my pain, and unfortunately many who might have been offended. First, don't waste any mental energy on being offended by my ramblings. Second, bring on the comments!


  1. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, Montessori in the Classroom. It might be my favorite. I refer to it often, and always read it over the summer before the new year. It concentrated on when she was teaching just a kindergarten class using Montessori, so many of the things are slightly above the preschoolers I teach, but it is still so interesting to read her impressions of the students and herself. She is quite hard on herself, and it gives me hope that if she was, well, maybe there is hope that I'm doing o.k., even though I don't always feel like it.

  2. I felt exactly the same as you did, last year while I was homeschooling. Tons of questions, hard to find good answers. I did sign up for an unofficial online training course through Yahoo groups (run by Karen Tyler, just heard about it from someone, but not sure how you'd get more info). She gave us her albums, and answered our questions through the group. Pretty helpful, but still not perfect. The training course I am taking is great! It's comprehensive, and has answered my questions better than anything else. Partly because we can just ASK IN PERSON until we are satisfied. I'm not sure how much I can say, though...I'll have to find out! Where I am, there are two training programs, one offered in a 6-week block during the summer (8 hours a day), and the one I'm taking is every other weekend or so, through the school year...definitely doable with kids.

    You've done a great job researching, and I love how comprehensive your blog is. Thanks for sharing your search for answers...I still need to read some of those books! And I agree with you that Maria Montessori could have been a better writer:)

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  4. I want to second the love for Montessori in the Classroom. My FAVORITE Polk-Lilard book by far(and I have no cared for everything she wrote). I also did like Child In The Family by Montessori, it might be my favorite writing by her...probably because I don't particularly care for her writing either and this one was different to read. Not what I expected though!

    I think you absolutely can provide a Montessori education at home. The research you have done will serve you well in your ventures. It will not look the same as it does in a traditional setting, but it will work. You have to remember that while group work is an important piece, so is the mixed age piece. Your boys will fall into the same 3 year span for most of their education. You will be able to tweak things.

    Follow the child and trust your instincts. They will guide you in ways books never can!

  5. Well, i am not at the same place. in the last week, I have literally sold/swapped (online) a lot of the books you mentioned. LOL i have resigned myself to not providing a montessori education, but instead using montessori materials/methods in our home education--there is so much more that i want to do. Because i am educating my own children in our home, i dont find this inconsistent--the mixing/adding methodologies, i mean. Homeschool is a different animal than school--Maria's methods were designed for/tested in school. i love your site though, dont be so hard on yourself.

  6. I'm just beginning my journey into montessori homeschooling and have been reading your blog for some time.

    The group aspect does bother me also. I wonder if you could work around that somewhat by 'joining forces' with another montessori homeschooling family, or if that would just prove too difficult. It's a thought though that has crossed my mind.

    I've been reading everything I can get my hands on this past 6 months and I do agree with the previous comment, I personally don't feel that a homeschool can fully implement a true montessori education.

    I do think however that you are doing a wonderful job and what your boys do receive will be an amazing education regardless of the few nuances you have mentioned.

    Thanks for a great blog. :)

  7. Homeschool is definitely different from a classroom and I think you shouldn't try to copy a classroom atmosphere by any means but rather try to think of what you have that they don't, like the undivided attention and better adjusted rythm. I work in a Montessori nursery and can assure you that it is far from being perfect, even with enough children to inspire one another! It seems that at the moment they are more interested in playing together and making lots of noise rather than working with the material, and when they eventually use it, it is time to go out and they have to stop in the middle of it. Classroom life is not perfect and cannot be, because you need that little bit of structure in the day; Homeschooling in the Montessori way is very hard, partly because of the pressure from society to put your children in school, and because you are the one making all decisions (I think your husband is not very involved, is it right?). I don't think any homeschooling parent feels 100% confident in what they are doing, and that is normal and ok!

    By the way, I have read Montessori in the classroom and I found it great and very easy to read, however it gives quite a positive view of a Montessori classroom and you should keep in mind that it rarely goes as well!

    About presenting materials to children that are at the right level, have you tried observing them beforehand? I have found observation such a great help in better understanding a child's sensitive periods. The book I use to help me is "Observing Children" by Sharman, Cross and Vennis.

    Keep educating yourself as well as educating your boys, it looks like you are doing a great job and they are very lucky!

  8. This is a "trick" my assistant & I use in the classroom for generating interest in a material: we get it out and do it ourselves. We'll set up near other children (usually we have a specific student in mind), and we do the work with delight & excitement. Usually within seconds of the work being returned to the shelf, a child picks it up. It is a subtle, yet effective invitation to work.

    Have you checked out They have an online "refresher" course - several of the assistants at my school have done it. Very impressive reading list -I've had Montessori Read & Write on my shelf for ages, so now I'm feeling inspired to pick it up again!

  9. There is a book called "A Teacher's Bag of Tricks" by Greg Nelson who is a Montessori Teacher. There are some wonderful tips in this book that might help. It is designed so that you look in the contents for the problem, then he gives you tips on how to solve that problem. LMK if you can't find it and I'll get you the address.

  10. Here are some disjointed thoughts I had while reading your piece:

    As you know, and like a couple of the others who commented, I'm mixing montessori-style with my own style education. However, I am doing this just because it's the way my brain works. Since my son seems very similar to me in that respect, I hope it works for him too. It may work better for you and your boys to follow Montessori more closely, and that's great. I find, though, that when I relax and stop trying to do it "right" that's when we have the most success and come closest to what Montessori seems to have intended.

    Definitely watch the videos. They changed my view of how things are supposed to work (although I still find myself picking and choosing from what she says). On the other hand, I have not read nearly as much as you have. The videos I would recommend most are the one on the pink tower, brown stair and red rods; the one on the color tablets; the one on the cylinder blocks; the one on the lesson; and the whole reading curriculum series (in that order). Then post your reactions, because I am very interested to know!

    The closest Montessori school to us is probably about 300 miles away. I have had the thought recently that if we had one closer, I might look into getting certification from them and teaching there if we could get discounted tuition. I don't know if I'd really do it, but I'd at least like the chance to visit and observe a real Montessori classroom. My son's cousin (six monts older than he is) just started at a Montessori school this fall. Their family is visitig next week, and I'm very excited for him to come to our house. Isn't that silly?

    I've also had vague thoughts of trying to start a homeschool co-op, like someone else mentioned, but they wern't very serious thoughts.

    One thing I've been trying lately is doing my own "work" in the library (what we use for a school room). This seems to work well, as my son goes back and forth from watching me to working on his own. When I have my own thing to work on, I'm not as tempted to hover, and he gets an example of focused effort. You might try bringing in a book to read to yourself during school times, and just occassionally checking on what their doing and giving lessons?

    I find that new material gets Beeper interested in everything again. I remember jojo saying that her son had renewed interest in materials when she moved the location of them. And I remember at LaPaz way back when I was first getting interest in this she posted about moving her daughter's watercolors over by her horse puzzle and it inspired a whole morning of work. Maybe this is one thing we need to do differently as homeschoolers: since there aren't other kids to generate interest and inspire, we need to mix things up again now and then.

    Do you have any kind of circle time or activity to break up your time in the school room? I know kids need mental breaks every so often. Maybe if they seem to be getting restless and not concentrating (Humphray says never interupt them if they ARE concentrating) you could gather them and do a few wiggle/action songs like "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes." I have heard that for some kids, this kind of break can help them return to their work with more concentration.

    Those are just some random (and unexpert) ideas. Let us know what you do! I admire the work and research you have put into this. I recently read a thesis paper on homeschooling from the 1980's (which I have been intending a series of posts on, but haven't been able to get all my thoughts together yet), and one thing that really stood out was a quote that said even the least of a home education is better than a public education. So if it makes you feel any better, remember than any effort you make for your boys is worthwhile, even if things don't turn out like you pictured them.

  11. I would highly recommend a training course, it is so much more effective to learn from experienced teachers. I know you've been doing that through reading blogs - which I've been doing as well, however no other experience I've had thus far can compare to my teacher training. I did not want to leave teaching my students while I went to train. We had two training options: Woodinville Montessori in Bothell, WA for two summer intensive sessions, or Spring Valley Montessori in Federal Way, WA that was offered every Saturday throughout the school year. I chose the Saturday classes becuase I didn't want to give up 2 summers, and I also wanted to pace myself, feeling that one 8-hour session a week would be more easy to digest than 5 days a week, 8 hours a day for 6 weeks.

    I have to say, my training was a treasure. The albums were great, but it was the conversations with experienced Montessorians that really helped. They shared their creative ideas, they showed us great books and materials they had made themselves. My training did not focus much on theory, like many online trainings do. Our main focus was on materials and how the children relate to them, the sequence of materials, etc.

    If you're worried about the group setting, you could always consider opening up a small homeschool with other moms, so your kids get that social aspect (although I can imagine that would require a LOT of work).

    Best of luck, and I love your blog! This was quite a thought-provoking post. I was just wondering, how did you become such a fast reader? I try my best, but am still slower than I'd like to be.

  12. I think the best advice I have is -don't compare yourself to a school. I teach my own children very differently to how I teach at school, despite using the same materials.

  13. Seattle Montessorian,

    I have NO idea how I became such a fast reader. I have been tested, and test in the top 1% for speed and comprehension. I never took a speedreading course or anything, it just happened. It is very handy! (Unless I am leaving the library, then I practically need a cart). As a kid they always had to put me in a "reading group of one" because I was ahead, and I remember smashing the library reading program records when I was in Elementary school.

    My husband is a very, very slow reader (I'm sure he'd be thrilled I'm putting that on the internet). But he never liked to read much. He was one of the casualties of whole-language instruction in the 70's. Now that he is older, he enjoys it again and had noticed that as he has read more regularly he is getting considerably faster.

    My theory is that it is a side-effect of how much I have always read. The more you read, the faster you get, which means you're reading even more and getting even faster...

    I can't imagine those speedreading courses are much fun.

  14. Seattle Montessorian,

    I think the downside is that it makes me really long-winded when I write. A post that is lickety-split for me is often ridiculously long!

  15. I was wondering, after a year of writing that post, are you still having the same feelings regarding the impossibility to really provide your sons with a true Montessori education while homeschooling?

    Can I ask you what were your steps from there?


  16. Petit Happiness,

    Well....six months later :)

    I feel like I have "resolved" most of the issues I mention in this post.

    I am in the midst of writing more of an "article" rather than a post on my personal resolution of these ideas. I hope to have it done soon.

    The short answer is, "Yes, I believe I can provide them a true Montessori education." However, I have to define "true" as "following Montessori's underlying principles." It will not be the same as a Montessori classroom education. I try to imagine what Maria Montessori would have said if she had written a book about doing Montessori at home with two children. She would have had to change a lot of the specifics.

    What gets slippery is that a lot of Montessori purists believe that if you change ANYTHING it is no longer a Montessori education.

    This is why I don't believe it is practical or possible for Montessori training to be made available for homeschoolers through the big Montessori organizations. I think it is really important that that the training be constructed by true Montessori experts. But I don't think it should be specifically sponsored by AMS or AMI. I think that some of the content and albums for that matter should be very different in the homeschool situation.

    I'll try to speed up my efforts with what I am working on. It is turning out to be quite a project and sometimes I ask myself "WHY am I doing this?"

  17. Thanks for that Follow up.

    I tend to agree with many things you have said. Indeed I am changing many things in the albums I have to make it more homeschooling friendly.
    I will surely read this article once you have the time to put the finishing touches to it.