Wheaton Montessori News
Those of you with students in the Elementary program at WMS know that there is a fundamental difference between traditional elementary school education and a Montessori elementary.
The traditional way to view education is to establish a set of standards: What facts and skills do children in this grade need to know to be ready for…the next grade? Then, a curriculum is devised which offers a plan for students to follow in order to meet those standards. The trouble with this approach is that what the child will learn is limited to the details in the curriculum. In fact, students are rewarded for ONLY doing what is stated in the curriculum. There is no incentive to do more. A child’s own interests and creative approaches to learning which fall outside the established curriculum are distractions. The child learns to ignore his/her own interests and ideas and substitute the goals of the teacher in their place.
In contrast, Montessori Elementary trainees are told from day one that our role in the classroom is to inspire, to plant seeds that ignite the child’s interests. Then, we observe the child and offer the guidance needed to help them develop their work, gradually building the skills (reading, writing, arithmetic, an understanding of scientific principles) needed to express what they’ve learned. We are told that “The curriculum for the Elementary child is the entire universe.” There is no limitation, other than the child’s own ability to imagine and understand, to what an elementary student can pursue and achieve. Students are not given a list of important facts to know, but instead prompted to think about what is exciting to THEM and how they might like to find out more.
This sounds wonderful, but…how do Montessori Elementary teachers actually DO that? Well, we begin with the Great Lessons.
The Great Lessons might be more appropriately called the Great Stories, as that is exactly what they are. There are five Great Lessons that are given each year, during the first several weeks of school. Each story is carefully designed to spark the child’s imagination, to engage his/her reasoning mind, and to plant specific “seeds” that the child might pick up on and cultivate further.
Remember that Dr. Montessori was first and foremost a scientist. From her observations of elementary-aged children, she could see that during this phase of development, the children possessed the ability to draw from their experience those ideas that were important, and that they naturally organized and classified new ideas. By, “placing before the child the satisfaction of his mental appetite,” as Dr. Montessori instructs us, we provide the optimal environment for each student to make his or her own discoveries and integrate them into the intellectual foundation that has been building, beginning with their primary experience.
On Wednesday, Elementary students had the first of this year’s Great Lessons: The Story of the Universe. This story presents the child with the basics of earth sciences: that all the particles in the universe have laws to follow, and in doing so, sort themselves into solids, liquids or gases (depending on temperature). The story provides them with a basic framework that will be gradually filled in by key lessons over the course of the six years in the Elementary environment.
Through these follow-up lessons as well as the child’s own chosen investigations, they cover all aspects of earth sciences. They learn that the Earth, over time, has been shaped and re-shaped. Because it is shaped in a certain kind of way and because it behaves in a certain kind of way, we have different seasons, we have night and day, we have elements and compounds, and we have three states of matter that react to temperature and to the laws of gravity. When the Earth began, air and water began to behave in a certain kind of way, and so we have winds, ocean currents, rivers, glaciers, and the spread of vegetation. All of these things together constitute an ongoing story that remains exciting to the child.
Our Elementary students return to hear these Great Lessons year after year. The stories are like old friends. But each time they hear the story, after another year of lessons and investigations, they are ready to take in new impressions from it, to add a new layer to their understanding.
As I told the Story of the Universe on Wednesday, I had as my audience nearly 50 children. My new first graders in front, eyes wide. My second- and third- graders, listening intently. And in the very back, some of the sixth graders, back to hear the story one last time, perhaps to reflect on how far they’d come, or maybe just to feel the comfort of an old friend before they make the leap into the big wide, world of adolescence.