Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Elementary Albums: Part One, Disclaimer

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Wow. I have been researching and reviewing elementary albums and I feel like I am back at the beginning of our Montessori journey. Do you remember the days when I wasn't sure how to fit the sequence together, worried about whether I could talk during a presentation, and agonized when the boys did things I didn't expect? Ah...the memories.

In fact, it is only NOW that I finally feel like I have constructive things to say about primary albums. It is only after having taken at least one-(and-a-half) children (almost)-all-the-way through the sequence that I can appreciate the pros and cons of each album. I think it would be difficult to have a valuable opinion about (or even notice) the slight differences of presentation style, theoretical disagreements, and the nitty-gritty order of the sequence among albums before you've lived it. (For those of you who have been using my recommended resources all along and are now panicing that I have changed my mind....take a deep breath. I still stand by the resources I've been using. I just have a clearer idea as to "why" they were my favorites and have developed an appreciation for parts of other resources that I didn't like as much at first.)

I can't help but think that the task of reviewing Montessori elementary albums should be done by someone other than myself. Ideally it should be someone who has completed all the works in a homeschool environment and can therefore spot the advantages and disadvantages of the various options. That person should also ideally have access to all of the albums from each supplier. It can't really be done properly by someone who has one album (or partial album) from each supplier and a packet of printed out tables of contents. Even better would be a reviewer who was actually convinced that you should have the all of the albums in the first place. As someone who is yet unconvinced that a full elementary album set is necessary, perhaps I should be automatically disqualified from this task?

I'm not a total neophyte. I have spent countless hours studying the theory/philosophy/psychology of the whole thing. I feel that I understand what an ideal elementary Montessori classroom might look like. I am familiar with the language and math sequence and the materials. I understand the Great Lessons and their role as catalyst for work. I admire the independence of the students, the social freedom, the "going out", and the student's responsibility for and recording of their own work.

When I wrote this old post about my search for answers in the Montessori primary curriculum I was already two years into our Montessori journey. I was very familiar with how Montessori was "supposed to" work but was frustrated because it wasn't necessarily working that way. I realize now, two years later, that the problem was not something I had missed reading or missed by training myself (not to say that formal training would not have been valuable). Rather, nearly all of the problems I was experiencing were the result of teaching in a Montessori homeschool with two learners as opposed to a traditional Montessori classroom of 30. The materials I used to "train myself" were designed for a traditional Montessori classroom. A Montessori homeschool is just different and at that time there just wasn't anything written about that. The many experienced and generous Montessori teachers kind enough to help me any weren't experienced with that. As for the remaining questions, those were the types of questions that find answers through actually teaching and actually doing. All of those questions cleared themselves up with a little time, a little more experience, and getting to know my "students." If you are currently struggling through implementing Montessori at home, rest assured that a year from now any problems you are having will be a distant memory and you'll have all new ones.

I have read through countless pages of elementary albums these past few weeks and I am just as confused as I was that day two years ago. Possibly more. The difference is that this time I recognize that while I understand the material that is in front of me, I also understand that what I really need to know is not in these albums. Until you sit in a Montessori elementary classroom from day to day alongside a master Montessori director you will not understand how to create a place where students will independently choose math and language activities daily. (Without the teacher assigning it or manipulating the environment so that while the teacher is really choosing they make the student think they are choosing it.) Until you see how someone creates the atmosphere where it really happens you won't see how the great lessons can lead the child through all of the activities in the other albums without you sitting down and making a schedule for each activity.

Via the clairvoyance of past experience I can predict this time around that it is NOT going to work exactly this way in a Montessori homeschool. And, there is nothing in any of these albums that explains how it IS going to work. When a multi-age classroom of 30 hears one of the Great Lessons they, individually or in small groups, spin off into a wide variety of different works across many subject areas. As the students report to one another on their work, new interests are stimulated and yet more work begins. This creates a cycle of work that can take you through a school year. Each successive year, as the student hears those stories anew, they find a new path to follow afterwards. It is possible to see that this net of activity will eventually cover much of what is covered in all those albums.

I just don't see how those five stories told in early fall can stimulate work for a full six years for two kids alone at home. Without that community of learners it seems like all of those activities in those albums need to be put on some type of schedule or we need to find another way to weave the great lessons into the environment to give their catalytic role stamina.

If I decide I have to organize these activities in some way rather than rely on spontaneous work spinning off of the great lessons, are albums really the easiest way to do this? I feel that the Montessori language and math materials are so specific that albums and a sequence are certainly desirable. It is in all the other subject areas where I feel it may not make sense to spend a lot of money on a set of albums that contain a lot of information and activity suggestions, but list those activities in no particular order. Just as was the case with the primary albums, none of these elementary albums (with one exception that has its own flaws), breaks this up and explains when to start each album and which activity follows what, and which run concurrently. The Gettman accomplished that for me for primary. A big part of why the division of the sequence of work into periods was even included in the Gettman is because that book was written for at home. If work doesn't naturally flow here at home from the five great stories, rather than reinvent the wheel there are probably other (non-Montessori) resources out there that would do all of that structuring for me but could be used in a Montessori way.

I hope you can see how my wish to provide as close to a true Montessori environment at home as I can combined with the reality that a Montessori home environment is by nature different than a Montessori classroom environment would result in very foggy opinions about albums.
I will write my reviews and give my thoughts. The upshot is that I shouldn't be the only one doing this. Everyone would benefit from other opinions. Please feel free to make many comments as I go. Fill in my blanks (I will try to make them apparent). I will also include link lists as I continue. If you write your own review of albums that you own, I would hope that you would link them so that we can all learn from each other.

In order to make a decision about albums for myself, I have had to make my best guess as to what I believe Montessori elementary will look like at home. The next post in this series will discuss that particular "ghost-of-Christmas-future" as well as the role of the Great Lessons in the elementary classroom and the needs of the elementary child in my imagination of it.

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  1. I teach an elementary class in the UK and, I have to be honest, I have similar thoughts with a smallish, non-normalised class as you have with your home-schooling.

    I don't have enough children who have had the primary experience to allow the Great Lessons to work as they were intended. So I have made some adjustments, following a rocky start to the term and I think they may be a useful addition to the debate.

    In the mornings my colleague and I concentrate on giving language and maths presentations. The children choose the work they are going to do, with our guidance, based on the presentations they have recieved. We have "board time" when each year group describes the work they are doing and I write it on the board for them to chosse from. Each child chooses five pieces of work and writes it in their journal. We oversee to make sure that no-one chooses all light weight work or all maths or all language. If a child gets absorbed in one piece of work for a long time then there is no expectation to complete the list.

    We started off with the 5 great lessons and they were completed in the first half of term. The work coming off them was disappinting. It took me a few weeks to realise that this was because we had too many new children who were stopping the more experienced ones from getting into their work. So, for the remainder of this term and all of next we have a topic on monday afternoons, science on tuesday afternoons and free choice on wednesdays. Thursday is PE and friday, chess. In the summer term we have schelduled all free choice.

    We were advised by a Montessori inspector to have science as a timetabled activity or lesson, as some children won't choose science and because it works better as a subject if it is planned and delivered to a whole class.

    The topics all have lots of links to the great lessons and I refer back to them a lot. It helps to guide the children until they are ready to take off - I think it may be similar in a home school and for the same reason - lack of role models.

    Hope this is helpful/useful.

  2. I would agree! I cant wait to see what you find out since Kal-El is just a wee bit older then Bunny (she will be 6 at the end of Jan). Like you my montessori journey has changed so much. What seemed like it was nessisary then, is not so much now. Homeschooling is different the a Montessori Classroom no matter what you do! So what to do? You have far more expirience then I do and I cant wait to see what you find out! I need all the help I can get! :) Thanks for documenting all the research you are doing!

  3. Hi, I've been semi reading your blog, peicing together my thoughts. I have two elementry kids along with a 6 year old and a 2 year old.

    I am reasearching things for school because I love to learn, and teach my kids.

    I found this website to be helpful: http://www.montessori.edu/prod.html

    After much reading I think the point of elementry Montessori is to let the child be given a chance to learn on their own; loosely being guided. So one example that we do is for History I wanted us to learn about how America was started. I ordered LIVING BOOKS from Winters Promise and on the boys schedule for History I have written down "chooose a History book to read." They have the freedom to read as long as they like and how many, but I keep it in that historical time. If they cannot find anything they are interested in I ask what they want to learn more about. Generally I find they read about some one and want to know more. They can't find anything to "read" because I only have one book on that person. I get books from the library and let them go.

    I have found that for english I really like following the McGuffy readers, and am having great spelling, and grammer success with that. Copy work is simple and engageing if you are copying the right things.

    The base of Montessori, Charolette Mason, McGuffy, and the other "greats" are all the same. Present information and let the child go. The choice to not learn is not an option.

    You are doing a good job, and I know there is pressure from other people for your children to "measure up" I understand that. Just know this, even if your boys went into a school - they will always be more advanced from this work than the other kids.

    As I am starting to teach my 3rd child to read I realized that I stressed way to much.

    Even though, I am not doing Montessori 100% if you have any questions feel free to email. Have a good day.

    andysarahf @ gmail . com

  4. If you are still searching for another album set, I must recommend Elizabeth Papandrea's AMI albums.

    I have her cultural album for Elementary. It is amazing. It is much more theoretical (and thus more helpful in adaptation).

    Here is the text of her post:

    Due to popular demand, I've decided to extend my sale for the AMI album set for the new price of $80 until December 23 -- two days before Christmas.

    The entire set will be available for $80 -- individual volumes, $20 apiece.

    Volumes include:
    Vol. 1 Mathematics
    Vol. 2 Mathematics
    Geography (includes geology, meteorology, chemistry)
    Biology (includes botany, zoology, ecology)

    Typed in easy to read Times New Roman size 14 font; copiously illustrated by hand; tremendous detail leaving you assured that you can be away from these albums and lessons for an extended period of time, to return with full detailed directions to refresh your memory completely.

    Please be aware that these are available to homeschool parents, teachers who wish to have a useful resource for their own information, and homeschool co-ops. Purchase of these albums does not equal AMI training, which must be taken through an accredited AMI training center and teacher-trainer. AMI trainees make their own albums -- AMI does not provide albums for their students -- so each trainee's albums are unique; therefore, each set is the trainee's own property. Please do not lend or resell.

  5. THANK YOU all for commenting! I have read everything thoroughly multiple times and really appreciate the advice, commiseration, and sharing of information/experiences. KEEP IT COMING!

  6. MBT,

    THANK YOU for stating how hard it is to do Montessori at home. When they are little, it's easy to leave out little trays to work on. But now that my son is older (transitioning from primary to elementary), without a little nudge every now and then, it's really hard to keep him going with independent interest.... AND those interests change at a whim, which sometimes means that I'm back to planning!

    Great job on this post!

  7. I found these links. This one is what items the elementry school had and where they were bought:


    This one has albums for sale.

    Good luck on your hunt!