The family is gathered around the dinner table after a busy day. There is the sound of munching, a few knock-knock jokes, some adult conversation, the cook is complimented on the meal and then someone asks, “What did you do today in school, Mary?” Mary replies, “Nothing.” A parent says, “Your teacher told me you worked on South America today – what did you learn about South America?” Mary answers, “I forget. Johnny took my crayon.” There may be a few more attempts to drag information out of the little student before dessert is served and it’s back to joke telling. Does this sound familiar? Do you wonder how you’ll ever know what your child is learning in school?
Your child’s teacher is continually assessing student progress. She notices his comportment when he arrives at school, takes note of unusual behavior, comments on the goings-on at home, thinks about the lesson she wants to present to him today and notices what he gravitates toward, looking for the opportunity to flash a new concept before his eyes. We practice mastery learning, which means that each lesson must be mastered before the next one is introduced; this is equivalent to an ‘A’ level of performance in a traditional school. Most of the lessons in school must be practiced many times before they are mastered. Whether your child is learning to pour water, write numbers or compose a poem, the teacher takes note of today’s progress and thinks about the lesson for tomorrow. If the child is having difficulty in a particular area the teacher often designs an exercise with this particular child’s interests and needs in mind. Each exercise in the curriculum features many extensions and variations so that the child is practicing the skill in a variety of ways on his way to mastery. All of this information is recorded daily and transferred into individual student records. You can sit down with your child’s teacher any time and she’ll be able to tell you precisely where your child is in every area of the classroom.
By the first parent-teacher conference in October, the child has been assessed for physical, social/emotional, and academic development. All of this is carefully recorded in the student record-keeping books and discussed with parents along with observations on behavior and how best to help the child work toward autonomy at home as well as at school. By the March parent-teacher conference the child’s progress has again been assessed as well as how best to prepare him for the following school year.
Although testing is generally not done in Montessori schools, we do administer SAT tests for our Early Childhood, Lower Elementary and Upper Elementary graduates. We have found this to be a good introduction to standardized tests that the child will eventually have to face whether applying for college or graduate school. The results always surprise us with how much our students have learned compared to peers in the city, state and nation. When we come across weaknesses, we examine and strengthen the curriculum.
Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of public schools in Washington DC and founder of StudentsFirst, commented in the December 13 issue of Newsweek, “The truth is that despite a handful of successful reforms, the state of American education is pitiful, and getting worse. …The US is currently 21st, 23rd and 25th among developed nations in science, reading and math respectively. The children in our schools today will be the first generation of Americans who will be less educated than the previous generation.” While Park City public schools are some of the best in the state, Utah still falls into 43rd place nationally. While Ms. Rhee, and many more, battle courageously to transform public schools we continue with a system that has stood out for the past 104 years. When Maria Montessori founded her first school in Rome in 1907 the results of her approach to individualized self-directed education were astounding. Within months of developing a system of self-instruction for elementary-aged children her students surpassed those in the public schools of Rome. Her new system worked beautifully – and it still does today.
Duna Strachan, AMS
Soaring Wings International Montessori School
Park City, Utah USA