I have gathered a lot of classroom materials and ideas over the years. I mean, a lot. I know some of you can relate to this. I have SO MUCH STUFF. I feel like a hoarder. But my classroom does not look like the homes on the hoarding TV shows. In fact, all my stuff is neatly organized and categorized and put away. I don’t like clutter. I considered myself an unclutterer, until I realized I was a fake unclutterer. Boo. Here’s a quote from the Unclutterer blog that shows what I mean:
“My mom was the perfect example of a fake unclutterer. She had every closet crammed with stuff, all categorized and neatly organized in plastic boxes. It didn’t look bad until you pulled it all out and realized just how much junk she saved. Yes, junk–hundreds of neat little bundles of twist ties for one example. All useful junk in reasonable quantities, but several lifetime supplies of pens, pencils, sewing needles, thread, chopsticks, notepads, letter openers, grocery bags, paper coasters, tape, hotel soaps and shampoos, ad infinitum.”
It was easy to maintain my hoarding and fake unlcutterer habits when I organized in just three dimensions. It wasn’t until I learned how to bring in that fourth dimension – time – that I started to feel truly organized. Started. I’m still working on it.
Simply put, the fourth dimension tells me when I’m going to use all the stuff I am saving. Without a plan, the stuff just sits there, I don’t go back to it much, and often forget what I have. What a waste. What a shame. What a concept.
Yes, it’s really called planning, but I like the sound of Organizing in 4 Dimensions better.
Before I go into my planning process, I’d like to make an important note: One of the basic features of Montessori education is individualizing the curriculum and following the child. That is where the meat of our classroom planning should be. What I will discuss here is the gravy. This is the extra stuff we add to the classroom to keep it fresh and stimulating, both for the students and for ourselves. If you are new to Montessori, please don’t think that this is a starting point. I spent ten years working on the basics of Montessori before I (carefully) began experimenting with extras in the classroom.
There are many different areas of the classroom that can benefit from planning, but today I will focus on planning our units or themes for the year. In Montessori jargon we call this our Cultural, or Cosmic, Curriculum. There are many ways that teachers approach this:
- A number of teachers like to display all their “cultural” (science and geography) materials on the shelves all year long to allow the children to choose topics when they are interested in them. I really really wanted to do this as a new teacher. I finally had to resign myself to the fact that I just did not have that much shelf space. Plus, it can be overstimulating for the children if it’s not done right.
- Another popular method is to have a designated shelf each for geography, botany, and zoology on which materials are rotated regularly. Each day the teacher introduces a new material for one of these shelves. I used this approach for quite a while.
- The approach I am experimenting with now could be called Unit Studies. I introduce a new topic each week or month and leave the materials out in the classroom for a month or more. I like the repetition of doing the same topic daily for a while. I have found that I do not enjoy doing a new topic every day. If we’re talking about bugs, I want to talk about bugs consistently for a few days and not do bugs one day, birds the next day, and flowers the day after that.
How I Plan
It is helpful for me to get a bird’s eye view of the resources I have available before I start planning. I can then make decisions about what units or themes might evolve from there. Do I have enough stuff for a full unit already? If so, that will definitely go in my plan.
If my materials are already categorized and stored neatly, then it’s easy to glance into the closet to see what I have. But if my materials are scattered in various locations, I don’t have to physically gather them at this stage. I think a few photographs will suffice.
Creating a Structure
Once I have a handle on the resources I already own, I can create a structure to make the best use of them. First, I make a list of all the units I can pull together using these resources. I can then plot out these units throughout the year. Here’s a snapshot of the year-at-a-glance grid I’ve been using for the past few years:
I use grids a lot. They give me a ton of information at once 🙂
Filling It In
- In the months column, I plug in the obvious seasonal themes.
- I like to think about an overarching sequence to the year. In Montessori, we go from simple to complex and concrete to abstract. The cosmic curriculum goes from big picture to details.
- Once I have an overarching sequence, I will break that down by month and add it to the months column. One year, for example, the sequence looked like this:
- August: Health & Safety
- September: Intro to My World
- October: Plants and Harvest
- November: North America
- December: Holiday Traditions
- January: The Earth and Space
- February & March: Around the World
- April: Ecology/Environment
- May/June: Animals
- Now I can fill in the smaller units within the monthly themes, like this (click to see larger image):
Now that I have my outline for the year, I can start to flesh out the details.
Again, there are many ways to do this. You can use a standard plan book from a teacher supply store or make your own.
A simple way is to just take a sheet of paper for each unit and make columns for each of the different areas of the classroom. Be sure to include things like Music, Snack, Outdoors etc. Within these columns, start plugging in the materials you already own. I like to write these on mini colored post-its which are easy to move around. Next, add ideas you’d like to try but which will involve more research and resources.
I have used Evernote for this over the past year and enjoyed it tremendously. I think I will stick with that for a while. (See details in the Tools I Use section below.)
Having it laid out like this puts me in a better position to decide whether it’s worth it to purchase more stuff for my
hoard collection or not.
One thing I’ve tried to do this past year is take photos of every single activity I’ve put out on the shelf. This way I don’t have to reinvent the wheel when I repeat a particular unit in the future. I’ve been sharing many of these photos on the blog since January and will continue to do so for a while.
There are an infinite number of topics you could choose for your units (take a look at LivingMontessoriNow.com for inspiration). Since I have collected many things over the years, I am building my units around what I already own. If you’re a homeschooler and starting with a clean slate, go with the interests of your children. Just don’t try to jam too many things into one year.
If you’re a teacher, you may want to come up with a different series of units for each year of the three-year cycle. I personally like a two-year cycle for my units because it builds in an element of repetition. The third year students can revisit topics they were introduced to at age 3 with fresh eyes.
At this point in my career, my goal is to add units only as I feel inspired. Over the years I have built up a decent library of units. This means I have NO NEED to buy or salvage RANDOM THINGS that I MIGHT use. There, I said it.
If you’re just starting out as a teacher, having a structure and a plan can really help you make decisions when you’re out and about and come across something that would be “just perfect” for the classroom. If you think back to your year-at-a-glance grid, you can ask yourself when exactly you would put that item out in your classroom. Sometimes, sadly, the answer is “never”.
Tools I Use For Curriculum Planning
I follow about 200 blogs (don’t judge me) and there is no way I want that many emails in my email inbox. I have been using Google Reader for years to subscribe to updates from these blogs but now that Google Reader is no more, I have had to find an alternative. I have settled on Feedly for the time being. The folks at Feedly have made a ton of improvements since the Google Reader announcement came out and have made a pretty awesome product. (It’s free, check it out.)
When I come across an interesting idea on my RSS reader, I click through to the blog and pin the image that best represents that idea to my relevant Pinterest board.
*Sigh* Evernote. Evernote has such tremendous potential and I have just scratched the surface of it. Evernote is a free app that you can download to your computer and mobile devices. It syncs between all your devices, and it gives you a ton of storage space for free. I can access and edit Evernote from my PC desktop, my Mac laptop, my phone, and my tablet.
I use Evernote instead of paper to plan out the details of my week and/or unit.
Here are some sample snapshots to demonstrate how I use it:
Click the images for details. (Affiliate links may be included in this post. See full disclosures here.)